Per the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of “anxiety” is: “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” “Stress” is defined as: “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.” Just as we discussed with our “depression or sadness” article, while these two are closely related, they are not the same. Stress may cause anxiety but it is not a given. Anxiety, however, invariably causes stress and a whole lot of other issues. Both also make it difficult to get a good night’s rest, even causing disruption and a lot of anguish to go along with it.
A debilitating cycle
When we feel anxious, it can manifest through feelings of fear and intense worry about a variety of situations we are facing or just life in general. These can make it difficult to sleep. Sometimes that is because the thoughts running through our minds are so pervasive, they keep us awake. At other times it is because we become so worried about these overwhelming emotions that cause us such nervousness and unease, we don’t want to go to sleep for fear of them coming at us in our dreams. We make ourselves stay awake because we don’t want to face whatever it is that is playing in our psyche, leading to insomnia and other sleep disorders.
The same holds true with stress but in a different way. Tension and worry brought on by different situations make us feel unsettled and out of sorts, making us lose sleep at night. How many times have you been sitting up, the clock ticking the hours away, completely stressed out about something that has happened, is about to happen, or is happening? Your mind races, your stomach hurts — I know my stress lives there for sure — and all sorts of feelings and emotions begin overtaking you. Before you know it, the sun is rising and you haven’t been able to go to bed because you’ve been caught up in this vicious maelstrom of concern.
Ironically, lack of sleep can manifest both anxiety and stress. You begin to feel anxious about the poor quality of your slumber and it also stresses you out. As you experience anxiety and stress, it makes it hard for you to close your eyes and get those 7 hours doctors all over the world recommend for healthy rest. This vicious cycle can be debilitating and exacerbate both of those feelings to the point you need help to overcome them and get back into a good sleep routine.
Anxiety, stress, and poor sleep: bad bedfellows
There is a hormone in our body known as “cortisol” associated with stress. Usually, it’s under control, comes out when we’re feeling those tense-filled moments, then goes its merry way when we manage it and move on. Poor sleep, however, releases more of this hormone into our body, heightening that worry and tension, causing us to have difficulty relaxing so we can actually calm ourselves enough to rest. As our stress rises, we can feel more anxious and the longer that continues, the more our anxiety and unease grow and take over.
Anxiety, stress, and poor sleep affects the rest of our lives in a variety of ways. They can lead to irritability with those we love, losing interest in the things that matter to us, poor productivity at work and our day-to-day, difficulty retaining and learning information, health problems, and even depression. Restlessness — and not in that Jack Kerouac On the Road “gotta find myself” kind of way, but the inability to sit still, focus, and keep your mind and heart from racing kind of way — is a big symptom of this trifecta. Feeling that out of sorts means we can’t relax, we can’t find peace, and as that happens, things escalate, often leading to a feeling of hopelessness that this cycle will never end.
Now that we’ve established this trio goes hand in hand in the pantheon of disorders that keep us from getting the rest we need, how can we turn them on their head and alleviate or at least address each to give relief for the others?
Here are five simple tips to at least try. As we always say, if you are feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, stress, lack of sleep, or all three, PLEASE contact a medical professional for help. What we offer here are things you can do at home or on your own, and we definitely don’t want to diminish those serious issues that cause us pain.
Slow your breath and clear your mind
Find a quiet, calm, soothing place. All you need is a few uninterrupted minutes — even 5 will do. Get into a comfortable position, set a timer for as long as you like, place your hands on your heart to feel your heartbeat, and close your eyes. Deep breath in for a count of four or five, slow breath out for a count of four or five. Thoughts will come at you. Let them. When they do, look at them, consciously release them, and return your focus to the breath. As you do this, relax your muscles a bit more with each breath, letting go, continuing to just focus on the breath and letting go. This little bit of respite helps get you out of the swirl of those thoughts that can overwhelm and derail you, and will relieve you for a bit.
Do something that brings you pleasure
Take a walk, garden, exercise, throw an ax, eat a great meal — whatever brings you joy, do it. When we are doing things that bring us pleasure, we release those feel-good hormones known as endorphins. They alleviate stress and relieve pain, giving us a sense of well-being. We naturally produce this and when you’re stressed and anxious, indulging in those things that makes you smile automatically lightens your emotional load.
Write it out of you
As you well know, when we say this, we mean to literally grab a piece of paper and hand-write it from your heart and head. You don’t have to be a hardcore journal keeper for this to be meaningful. It can be as simple as writing literally what is on your mind, how this makes you feel, even if it’s single words: “Shitty,” “angry,” “frightened,” “powerless,” and so on. Or you can write a whole story about what’s going on in your heart and head, getting it out of you and pushing it away. When we hand-write rather than type things, our brain processes them more fully and it makes a bigger difference in our mental and emotional state.
Give yourself pre-sleep “wind down” time
Be deliberate about setting aside time before you go to sleep to calm yourself for bed. Just as we do with our kids when they’re little by having "quiet time" in preparation for either their naps or their slumber, we need to do this for ourselves. By giving yourself those few minutes to stop and focus on relaxing your mind and emotions before going to bed, you have a better chance to succeed in falling into a stress-less, comforting snooze. Gentle music, soft lighting, reading instead of watching television, enjoying the stars at night — do something that chills you out before bed so that when you slide under those sheets, you are ready.
Create a haven for yourself
Maybe it’s an entire room or perhaps it’s just a corner with those things that make you feel at ease, but no matter where it is, put together a “me” space. This is completely yours and where you can go to unwind, decompress, and release the anxiety and stress you’re feeling. Make some ground rules about this space and put them up for others to understand. It can even be at your desk at work during certain times of the day — ex. “When my ‘Me-Time’ sign is up, please do not disturb.” We all need a place or time we can call our own to alleviate the day-to-day stuff that comes at us. Give that to yourself, fill it with whatever you need and if you can’t find an actual physical location, visualize it as you do your calming breaths.
You don’t need to go it alone
While not all of us experience anxiety to the extent it creates roadblocks in our lives, feeling anxious from time to time is not uncommon and stress is normal. Going through sleepless nights from worry and tension occasionally is also par for the course and, really, these five tips and many more are helpful for alleviating what is troubling your heart and mind. If you find yourself overwhelmed to the point of excessive sleeplessness and you simply can’t get away from those feelings of hopelessness, unease, and anxiousness, however, reaching out to someone you care about for support or a counselor or therapist is a gift. Should you be caught up in any of this and don’t know where to start, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is a great resource.
As we come to the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, we send all hopes for a healthy year. We know life has been and continues to be tough for so many of us out here and it’s not always easy to reach out and admit when our mental state is feeling out of sorts. Please know, no one ever needs to go through these things alone and getting the help you need when you need it is the best kind of self-care. Period.