Updated: Sep 18, 2020
Anxiety levels can influence sleep by preventing you from falling asleep or causing you to wake in the middle of the night. Everyone is different in how they perceive situations and some people are affected more than others, let me explain. The culprit is the human body’s endeavour to protect itself and stay alive, which is something it has been successfully doing since the beginning of mankind.
Stress and Anxiety
During a period of stress or threat, the body responds by releasing hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. This is the body’s ‘stress response’ which is designed to help you evade a threatening situation by giving you immediate energy to physically escape. When you feel anxious it is the effects of these hormones surging around your body, causing many symptoms including irritability, palpitations and funny tummy. The brain is working to rapidly send signals to other parts of the body to help you escape.
In the beginning, stressful situations included threats from sabre tooth tigers and cavemen so you would use the adrenalin to help you run or fight, hence removing it from your system. Today’s threats are from situations with health, family and work but the human body still responds in the same way. The brain can perceive an argument, a text message, or the news of in the same way as it did a threat from a sabre tooth tiger. This means that in today’s environment the adrenaline remains in your body for prolonged periods because you do not use it up by running or fighting. This can cause prolonged periods of anxiety and a lack of good quality sleep. Some people experience this even when they can see no threat or stress, almost as if the stress response has become too sensitive. The predominant threat to most people just now is COVID-19 and fear of the unknown.
Anxiety affects brainwaves
In addition to the physical symptoms of anxiety you are more vigilant and aware, your attention is alert and focused, which feels like constant worrying to you and me. When the brain is alert and engaged in problem solving it is generating Beta brain waves. Beta is a fast brain wave activity that is present when we are awake and engaged in decision making and cognitive tasks. Anxiety causes persistent Beta brainwaves in its attempt to evade a threatening situation.
Anxiety and sleep
Stress hormones peak in the afternoon and early evening—just when you should be relaxing and preparing for sleep. Let me explain why brainwaves are important in understanding the link between anxiety and not sleeping well.
When you sleep your body moves through several states of brainwave activity. Each type of brainwave brings its benefits to your body, restoring both physical and mental states, learning, processing the day’s information and adding it to long term memory. The best part is, of course, recharging your body’s battery for the next day.
During the day your brain waves are predominantly Beta. Then it gets dark, you lie down in bed and this is what should happen:
Stage 1 The brain produces Alpha & Theta brain waves. Alpha evokes a relaxed mental state like a daydream and Theta induces a deeper state of relaxation and light sleep. This means you are still somewhat alert and can be woken easily. This is the state you are in when you have a catnap.
Stage 2 The brain wave frequency increases and brain waves slow down (during a cat nap you would wake up now).
Stages 3 & 4 The brain produces slower Delta waves which are less responsive to outside stimuli. This moves you into a deeper restorative sleep which is harder to wake from. The body repairs tissue, muscles and boosts immune function. Like a car battery being recharged, it builds up energy for the next day.
REM stage About 90 mins after falling asleep, each REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage lasts up to an hour. Most people have 5 or 6 REM cycles every night, during the final phase of sleep the brain becomes more active. Most dreaming occurs in this stage. REM is important for learning and memory function. The brain processes and consolidates information from the previous day and stores it as long-term memory.
How does anxiety affect sleep?
When you are anxious the Beta brain waves dominate, keeping you thinking and alert. But to relax and enter the sleep cycle you need Alpha brainwaves. But how can you relax and unwind if the adrenalin and cortisol are moving around your body, keeping you alert and mentally functioning with Beta brainwaves? If you reduce the body's need for the Beta waves then the Alpha will come, as they usually would at bedtime. Alpha activity has been linked to a reduction in stress, anxiety, discomfort and pain.
Alpha brain waves are great and we want/need to have them. Normally, Alpha would progress to Theta and Delta and REM sleep and so waking up feeling refreshed and able to deal with life. The brain chemicals connected with deep sleep tell your body to stop the production of stress hormones. If your body is aware of the need to stay alert to the stressful situation, then even if it does manage to enter into a phase of sleep it can be alerted right back, as brainwaves change back to Beta to help escape the stress. This is why you wake during the night and feel wide awake and alert.
In this scenario who wins? Stress or sleep? How do we break the cycle?
Your subconscious is in charge
Your subconscious is in charge of the sleep cycle and the stress response. Just like orchestrating your breathing, blinking and swallowing it decides what needs to happen and when. It is all designed to keep you safe, alive and protected and it does this based on how it feels about its environment. It will respond to a threat of any kind, whether real or perceived. It will respond in the same way to a scary animal attack or a situation with work/health/family or a great fear of the unknown – uncertainty. Under such a threat it will initiate the stress response, flood the system with adrenaline and cortisol and increase the Beta brainwaves. This will happen until the body perceives there to be no threat.
This is how we reak the cycle
The cycle is broken by changing your subconscious mind’s perception of the stress. If this happens the body doesn’t need to create the adrenaline and cortisol. This means the Beta waves reduce when you go to bed allowing the Alpha waves to come.
These relaxing Alpha waves lead to Theta, Delta and REM, resulting in a full night’s sleep. There are 2 ways of achieving this: either the stressful situation goes away, or you can change the way your mind perceives the situation/threat and so regain order of your bodies subconscious functions – sleep and stress response.
Using a unique combination of PSYCH-K, NLP and Cognitive Hypnotherapy we can break the cycle.
Together we can change how your subconscious mind perceives a stressful situation. It means you will feel calm, in control, able to deal with the situation and that things will be okay. Fear of the unknown can be replaced with a feeling of resilience and the ability to create ideas and see opportunities instead of problems. When there is no stress response, there is no excess adrenalin and cortisol and no need for constant Beta brainwave activity. What was once a narrow, focused and stressful view begins to open up and it now feels as though there is is light at the end of the tunnel - feeling at peace and sleeping well. Your brain will still be aware of the situation and how important it is but you will have a balanced logical and emotional response instead of being overwhelmed by adrenalin and cortisol.
It’s important to note that sleep problems are also due to unresolved feelings, memories, trauma or anxieties. A person may or may not be aware of the cause but together we can resolve them and you can return to peaceful slumber.