Is My Insomnia Caused By Anxiety Or Is It The Other Way Around?

Not being able to sleep is one of the most frustrating things a person can go through. We try to work out whether anxiety is a product or cause

Is My Insomnia Caused By Anxiety Or Is It The Other Way Around?

by Jazmin Kopotsha |
Published on

You’re in bed, giving lying on your back one more time after having tried to nod off on your front, on your side, doing the starfish and curling up in the foetal position about seven or eight times. But who are you kidding, you’re not going to fall asleep regardless but you switch positions one more time, just in case.

You’re not quite sure what time it is and don’t want to risk pushing yourself further from sleep by waking up your phone, but your gut tells you that it’s probably sometime between about 1 AM and 4 AM. Those torturous three hours when frustration grows to an anxiety driven bed-bound breakdown. You stop being angry at the seemingly nonexistent concept of sleep and instead find yourself agonising over why you don’t possess the really fucking simple god-given ability to close your damn eyes and keep them closed until morning.

How do you solve a problem like insomnia? It’s the question that countless people have, and are still desperately trying to solve. I’ve visited various GPs. I’ve spoken with specialists. I’ve tried the teas, lit the candles and taken every herbal or prescription sleeping tablet at my disposal with a glass of warm milk even though warm milk makes me gag. It hasn't worked. But if there’s anything I’ve learned through my own battle with slumber over the years, it’s that for some people, sleep is anything but simple. And accepting that is a huge part of the battle with the anxiety that ensues before and after.

If you’re not familiar with the condition, it’s really not anywhere near as frivolous as Craig David describes it in his late-noughties chart scraper. The National Sleep Foundation describes insomnia as ‘difficultly falling asleep or staying asleep, even when a person has the chance to do so’. Chronic insomnia, though, is when this happens three or more times a week for three months. In general terms, insomnia is often linked to anxiety and is actually one of the defining criteria of a number of anxiety disorders. But the specifics as for whether or not it’s your existing anxiety that’s causing you trouble sleeping or the lack of shut eye that’s putting a strain on your mental health isn’t always as straightforward to work out.

Hope Bastine is the resident sleep psychologist at Simba Sleep and she explains that anxiety and insomnia work in a cyclical sort of way. ‘Your mental health can impact your sleep and sleep issues can actually cause mental health issues, so it’s completely synergic’, she says. This idea of going around and around, stuck in a vicious circle of not being in a great headspace, not sleeping, getting worked up because you’re not sleeping, continuing to not be able to sleep and so on, is all too familiar to so many of us but Hope says that our fixation on compartmentalising the issues – i.e. sleep vs anxiety – might actually be stopping us from finding solutions.

‘This is the problem with the western mentality of separatism and thinking that if they fix one thing it’s going to fix everything else and I think you’ve got to be willing to yes, try different things and yes, it will have a knock-on effect, but recognise that perhaps it's having a back and forth effect', she says.

How well we sleep has a huge effect on how we feel the next day. When we looked at how depression and insomnia affect each other on The Debriefwe found out that there’s some evidence to suggest that only a couple of hours of sleep are needed for physical recovery and the rest is for our psychological and mental recovery from the day. Hope shares a similar sentiment and explains that ‘if you’ve got a worry that’s an undercurrent in your self-conscious causing you to stay up late at night or not settle down and unwind, then of course that lack of deep sleep – the healing sleep – is then going to be causing you to be really low, depressed or anxious in the morning’.

It’s hard to pinpoint the cause and effect when you’re stuck in this sleep anxiety cycle though. The Sleep Schoolexplains that insomnia is actually a ‘Hyper-Arousal Syndrome’, which basically means that it triggers that fight or flight response that releases cortisol and adrenaline. This will explain that really unhelpful feeling of mentally pleading for sleep when your body doesn’t seem to have gotten the bedtime memo and is as alert as it probably should be in the day. And let's not forget that anxiety releases similar stress hormones too, so the two issues really are deeply intertwined. So it might be worth looking into addressing the problem of sleep anxiety as a whole, rather than trying to just fix your insomnia, or just your anxiety in hopes that they'll, in turn, be a solution to the other. ‘It’s really about doing things like sleep rituals (creating a legitimate pre-bed routine that will trigger your brain to understand that it’s almost time to turn off) to enhance your sleep. Even that act of self-care is psychologically healing for you’, explains Hope.

Sleep anxiety a huge issue that, despite being really familiar with the facts and figures these days, I’m always surprised to realise affects so many of us. Because when you’re lying awake in the middle of the night, increasingly working yourself up as each second, minute, hour passes by, it’s easy to feel really alienated from the rest of the world who manage to slip into sleep the moment they hit the pillow. But in actuality, insomnia regularly affects around one in every three people in the UK. Last year it was reported that four in every 100 people in the UK have an anxiety disorder. And I’m sure we don’t need to be reminded of how much of these things are often attached to merely existing as a millennial.

So, then, how do we fix our relationship with sleep? How do we, a generation often defined by anxiety who are as obsessed with sleep as we are resentful of it, rest easier? Well, there was definitely something in that sudden fascination with adult colouring books and mindful origami a year or two ago. 'My favourite thing is journal writing', says Hope. 'It’s a really lovely activity and in a way, you feel like you’re accomplishing something but you’re doing it in a non-analytical way. It’s not "what I did today", it’s your feelings. It’s also a really useful way to get stuff out that’s maybe going around in your head. It’s probably why it’s so effective. I actually prescribe some of my client’s journal writing as part of their therapy'.

The idea is that you do something like colouring or journal writing (i.e. not sitting on your phone or with your laptop with a load of blue light glaring over your face) about an hour before you want to go to bed as what Hope describes as the 'Mind Stage' of your sleep ritual. Then there's the 'Body Stage' which involves about 20 minutes of something like having a warm bath, massage or moisturising or maybe some light stretchy yoga. (Hope also says that orgasm is the greatest antidote to insomnia though, so, you know...). And then, just before sleep you want to enter the 'Zen Stage' which I feel is a particularly important one to think about if sleep anxiety is your thing.

The 'Zen Stage' focuses on meditation which, before your roll your eyes, Hope agrees can be a pretty intimidating word if you're not familiar with it or are just plain sceptical of the whole thing. But when you get down to it, it's just about intentionally focusing your mind and quieting the things that normally whizz around and keep you awake. I know, easier said than done. But Hope has a really helpful, not-awkward online meditation guide which might be a good place to start. And I think the main thing is this idea of consciously turning sleep into an experience that we actively prepare and go through rather than a byproduct of the day. Something like insomnia, whether you feel like it's driven by or a symptom of anxiety (literally) isn't going to go away overnight. But the most common form of insomnia, like a sleep ritual, is a learnt process that your brain becomes accustomed to. So, who knows. Maybe by redefining the process that our brains are concentrating on - enjoying the process of going to sleep rather than anticipating an awful night - perhaps some of us will eventually look forward to getting into bed.

Like this? You might also be interested in…

Unpicking The Millennial Obsession With Sleep

Can We Please Stop Sleep Shaming Everyone?

Ask An Adult: How To Deal With Insomnia In Your Twenties

Follow Jazmin on Instagram @JazKopotsha

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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