by Lona Bailey, Refuge Center Intern
Everyone struggles with some degree of stress and anxiety these days. We have too much to do and never enough time to do it. We all know the value of slowing down and taking time to relax, but our calendars just keep filling up.
Though there are many contributors to stress and anxiety, one commonality among the anxious US population is sleep deprivation (Hart, 1999). Our brains produce their own natural tranquilizers (called happy messengers) that help keep us calm, stable, and ready to manage the day. But because we encounter lots of stressors each day, our supply of natural tranquilizers is gradually depleted as the day goes on. Sleep is significant in the replenishing process so our brains and our bodies have a fresh supply of energy that helps us maintain a high stress tolerance and keeps us from experiencing unhealthy amounts of anxiety during the day.
Not all anxiety is caused by sleep deprivation, but this fill/deplete/refill cycle is the natural process by which we maintain equilibrium and have the capacity to handle all the tasks we have to complete each day. It is a delicate balance that can be grossly offset if a shortage of sleep incurs. Without regular sleep cycles and consistent amounts of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the deepest sleep stage, our brains do not have enough resources or time to refill our happy messenger tank. If sleep deprivation is an ongoing issue in our lives, we are constantly allowing our brains to be depleted of the necessary energy it needs to handle our work projects, relationships, to-do lists, and general busyness with no consistent flow of replenishment. That deficit manifests itself in many ways, but one primary way is through symptoms of stress and anxiety: rapid heartbeat, fatigue, muscle tension, dizziness, constant worry, panic, etc. (Hart, 1999).
If you are considering breaking the cyclical relationship between sleep deprivation and day-time anxiety, here are some tips that can help you get started:
- Unplug and unwind before bed. Consider unplugging from all types of media at least an hour before bed to give your mind time and space to transition from the high-stress day into a calmer and more neutral state before sleep.
- Avoid stimulants and heavy meals in the evening.
- Make sure your bedroom is quiet and peaceful.
- Sleep in the dark. Hart (1999) says, “Darkness starts the production of the very important brain hormone melatonin. This hormone helps us with the onset of sleep” (p. 209).
- One step at a time. Inconsistent sleep patterns did not develop in one night, so implementing a new and healthier sleep schedule will also take time. Improving sleep habits can mean making small changes one at a time. This could mean going to sleep a half hour earlier or limiting caffeine intake after a certain time in the evenings.
- Consistency is key. Sleep maintenance is vital to the reduction of anxiety. For example, getting even one more hour of sleep each night during the week is always a better option than trying to make up for loss of sleep on the weekends. Any healthier habits you implement, consistency in adopting them is optimal (Hart, 1999).
Sleep is a key factor in managing anxiety and stress, but there are many others involved as well. Anxiety is a pervasive issue in our society and while there are practical steps we can take to improve stress management ourselves, sometimes counseling can provide even more insight and tools to assist in that management. The counselors at The Refuge Center for Counseling are here to walk with you through any obstacles that you may be facing. Visit us at www.therefugecenter.org or call us at 615.591.5262.
Hart, A. (1999). The anxiety cure: You can find emotional tranquility and wholeness. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.