Sleep deprivation can make you feel anxious, and anxiety can affect your sleep. Here are some ways to reduce anxiety and help you sleep more soundly.

Sleep plays an important role in your mental health. If you’ve ever been sleep-deprived, then you know how it can leave you feeling anxious and irritable the next day.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that adults need at least 7 hours of sleep per day to maintain optimal health. Anything less can lead to adverse health effects, such as anxiety and depression.

If your mind is keeping you awake or you’re unable to fall asleep and stay asleep, you may have an anxiety or sleep disorder. But there are things you can do to help reduce anxiety and sleep more soundly.

“Lack of sleep and anxiety are highly connected. Those who suffer from sleep problems often have issues with anxiety,” says Dr. Julia Kogan, a health psychologist specializing in sleep and stress from Miami, Florida. “Those who have anxiety often struggle with sleep issues.”

Kogan says that when you’re not sleeping well your body releases more cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. This can cause uncomfortable symptoms, such as headaches or digestive issues, that can make you feel anxious or give you low energy due to poor sleep.

“The more activated the nervous system, the harder it is to fall asleep,” Kogan explains.

So, if you’re feeling anxious, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to fall asleep and stay asleep. This can then cause a loop where you’re not sleeping and you’re feeling more anxious. This results in even more problems with sleep, Kogan says.

If you’ve ever had a bad night’s sleep, you may have experienced a little anxiety the next day. Research shows that lack of sleep can contribute to this irritability.

A 2013 study found that sleep deprivation amplified reactions in the amygdala and anterior insula. These are parts of the brain that are associated with anxiety.

These reactions were strongest in people who displayed high levels of trait anxiety, which refers to the anxiety that’s part of your personality.

Having a lack of sleep doesn’t always mean that you’ll experience more anxiety. But the study suggests that people who are already prone to anxiety may experience a greater increase in anxiety when they’re sleep-deprived.

A 2020 study found that people who have insomnia symptoms are vulnerable to anxiety during times of stress.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, sleep difficulties can contribute to and intensify mental health conditions like depression or anxiety.

Lack of sleep increases cortisol, which can then increase anxiety, Kogan says. It’s more likely for a lack of sleep to cause anxiety when other factors are present, such as negative thought patterns or avoidance behaviors.

If someone is chronically sleep-deprived and not managing the stress that’s associated with that, it can lead to an anxiety disorder, she says.

Common disorders associated with insomnia include:

A 2020 study of sleep disturbance in PTSD and anxiety disorders found that there’s a bidirectional connection between sleep problems and anxiety. This means that sleep disturbances can lead to anxiety, and anxiety can lead to sleep deprivation.

Sleep disturbances don’t directly cause anxiety disorders, but disturbed sleep can contributeto anxiety (and vice versa) when other factors are at play, such as:

  • unhelpful thought patterns (cognitions) when you’re trying to sleep
  • unhelpful beliefs about sleep itself
  • the absence of good sleep hygiene

When it occurs alongside other anxiety risk factors, a lack of sleep can contribute to panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear or anxiety that occurs unexpectedly.

“Someone who is not sleeping well is more prone to physical changes related to nervous system activation,” Kogan says.

When there’s an increase in the nervous system activation, people breathe shallower and more rapidly, and this change in breathing can trigger a panic attack when the person is at risk for panic attacks.

The good news is that there are ways to help reduce anxiety and stress and sleep more soundly. Consider following these tips:

Establish a bedtime routine

Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. Try and get the recommended 7 to 10 hours of nightly sleep and do something relaxing before bedtime, such as taking a warm bath or reading a book.

Create a sleep-friendly environment

Consider sleeping in a cool, dark, and quiet room. Try using a fan or sound machine to drown out any noise, and make sure your bedding and pillows are comfortable.

Get regular exercise

Daily exercise is good for your physical and mental health. It also helps release endorphins. You can try yoga, which has been known to reduce anxiety and stress. Make sure to limit exercise to the morning or afternoon.

Check in about the things that may keep you awake

For many people, a major factor that interrupts sleep is worrying about how much you need to sleep or how many problems might come from not sleeping well. This pressure can (counterproductively) stop you from getting to sleep.

It can help to notice and challenge catastrophic thoughts about sleep. For instance, you might take a minute to consider: Will not getting sleep really mean I won’t be able to function the next day?

Talk with someone

If you’re still experiencing problems falling asleep, you may need a sleep remedy or a prescription. Consider talking with a doctor or therapist.

Sleep therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTi), can help with anxiety and sleep.

Reach out to your friends and family too and let them know how they can help.

Lack of sleep and anxiety are connected. If you have sleep problems you may have anxiety, and if you have anxiety, you may also experience sleep difficulties.

Research suggests that sleep deprivation may increase anxiety in people who are prone to anxiety and are experiencing other anxiety-related risk factors.

But there are ways to cope, such as:

  • creating a bedtime routine
  • making a sleep-friendly bedroom
  • getting daily exercise
  • talking with a therapist or friend

If lack of sleep is still causing you anxiety after you’ve tried these tips and practiced good sleep hygiene, then you may want to consider speaking with a mental health professional or sleep specialist for further care.

If you’re looking for a therapist but aren’t sure where to start, Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.