Insomnia - Why Anxiety Stops You Sleeping

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When people complain of insomnia they usually mean they're not getting the sleep which they think they should be getting.

There are two basic types of insomnia. One is being unable to get to sleep at the expected time and the other is when the person falls asleep as usual but then wakes again after only a few hours and is then unable to get back to sleep.

If you are being kept awake or woken by any type of physical symptoms such as pain or other bodily discomfort, please check these out with your doctor as these are unlikely to be caused primarily by anxiety.

Insomnia as an anxiety symptom generally happens when the arousal system has been allowed to travel high up the scale too frequently in a short space of time and it finally seems to get stuck up there.

As I explained when describing the arousal system, high negative arousal will activate the survival instinct. If the survival instinct believes you are in danger it's more than its job is worth to let you go to sleep because that would mean you could be caught off guard. (you can read about the various mechanisms that are involved in the development of anxiety symptoms in the section on Causes of Anxiety)

anxiety prevents sleeping
survival instinct keeps woman awake

High positive arousal - such as excitement - will also prevent us sleeping. Take, for example, the case of a young child unable to get to sleep on Christmas Eve due to excitement about the next day. Adults can also experience high positive arousal which prevents them sleeping if they anticipate something particularly exciting is about to happen.

But when excitement, or any other positive feeling, prevents us sleeping we don't usually regard it as a problem.

On the other hand, when we are worried or anxious about things, the high arousal is negative and very often ongoing. In such circumstances there is not usually a specific startle warning as occurs in other anxiety symptoms. Instead the constant raised arousal causes the survival instinct to keep clicking on and off a bit like a central heating thermostat.

It stands to reason that if your survival instinct is being triggered constantly, perhaps only at a low level, it wouldn't be doing its job if it allowed you to go to sleep when there is an ongoing possibility that there is danger around.

having scary dreams
being woken by scary dream

Sometimes anxious people manage to fall asleep, only to be woken early. Very often this is because they have been dreaming of the situations which they are worrying about. The arousal system doesn't differentiate between real threats and ones in your head such as fearful thoughts or, in this case, dreams.

What can I do to get to sleep then?

Sometimes people try medication such as sleeping tablets. The problem with these is that they work at a different level and override the normal systems.

Sleeping pills will knock a person out so that they sleep but they won't cure the problem of anxiety-related insomnia.

In general the best solution is to evaluate your situation and learn skills for focusing on the here and now rather than worrying about what might happen. Worry is the root cause of much insomnia that's not related to a medical problem. 

Another common trigger for insomnia is that the person has experienced some kind of trauma and dreams or thoughts about this are creating raised arousal levels which, in turn, prevent sleeping. (There is more about this in the page about nightmares.)

One relatively simple method of reducing insomnia is to play Baroque music at a low level in the background whilst sleeping. I have suggested this in the past to several patients who were suffering severe PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and they reported that it definitey helped them to sleep.

The reasons for this involve the brain's ability to become entrained to the rhythm of the music. (You can read more about it on the page about Baroque music) But you don't need to understand why it works in order to try it. On the other hand if you happen to hate this type of music you will resent it and make matters worse!

Another reasonably simple aid to sleeping is to use a mindfulness meditation technique for which suitable downloads are available on this website (see  Mindfulness)

Common Symptoms of Anxiety

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  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Anxiety Symptoms
  3. Insomnia