Waking up from anxiety during the night: causes and advice

September 24, 2020 5 mins read
Waking up from anxiety during the night: causes and advice

Clammy hands, racing heart, stress eating, and waking up at night… we’ve all experienced anxiety at some point in our lives. And while it’s not easy to manage the demands of daily life, if anxiety is affecting the quality of your sleep, it’s time to take action.

There are many factors that can cause anxiety, like work-stress, money worries, rocky relationships and traumatic life events. But anxiety doesn’t have to rule your life – or your sleep. You can take back control of your mind and get the rest you need.

Can anxiety wake you up?

The short answer: yes. While there are many things that can snap you out of your sleep (think: poor sleep hygiene or a sleep disorder), waking up from anxiety is at the top of the list.

Anxiety causes a rush of cortisol (your stress hormone), which scientists call the cortisol awakening response (CAR). Stress and anxiety can also trigger vivid nightmares, another sure-fire way to ruin your rest and cause poor sleep.

What’s causing you to wake up from anxiety?

There could be many reasons why you wake up with anxiety attacks. One of these could be generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). It’s a common anxiety disorder associated with constant nervousness, worrying and tension.

If you don’t have GAD, you could be waking up from anxiety because of one of the following reasons:


We all go through periods of stress in our lives. Stress can be triggered by pressure at work, school, studies, problems with friends, or the pressure to do it all. When stressed, your mind races, heart rate goes up, and body temperature increases. Each of these symptoms alone is enough to disrupt your sleep.

What’s more, neurochemicals like epinephrine and norepinephrine increase when the body is overstimulated from stress. These neurochemicals can keep you awake and disrupt your sleep cycle.

Life events

Going through stressful or traumatic life events can make it difficult for you to sleep and can also make you wake up from anxiety attacks. You could be dealing with one of the three Ds: death, divorce and debt. Losing a job, ending a friendship, or being in a car accident… these are all examples of stressful situations.

Family problems

Every family comes with its own challenges, and the ones your family are facing, whether financial struggles, moving, illness or death, or divorce, could be bad enough to disrupt your sleep.

Financial worries

Times are tough, and you might be dealing with some financial difficulties that are keeping you up at night. Worrying about things like losing your job, bills piling up, and putting food on the table is a lot to take on.

Relationship problems

Ever woken up at night because you’re reliving an argument you had with someone? Lying in bed thinking about past situations and possible future confrontations can keep you up. Especially seeing as your anxiety will probably become even worse as you keep thinking about the problems.

Low blood sugar

Believe it or not, but if you are waking up feeling anxious, it could be because of low blood sugar. When your blood sugar levels take a dive, it triggers your cortisol levels to spike, making you feel anxious even if you’re not feeling stressed mentally.

5 Tips to reduce anxiety at night

If you have anxiety, it’s essential to focus on the things you can control instead of the things you can’t. You have a lot more power than you may realise, so take back control of your mind with these tips to reduce anxiety at night.

1. Breathe

Shallow breathing increases cortisol levels, bringing on anxiety. That’s why it’s so important to stop and take a breath. Deep breathing exercises can help you relax, calm your mind and allow you to get a handle on your stress. You can amplify the anxiety-relieving powers of breath by pairing breathing exercises with sleep meditation.

2. Exercise

Getting active can help relieve anxiety by releasing endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals produced by the brain. It also limits our fight-or-flight response, an inherited response to danger (like when our ancestors came face-to-face with wolves).

While a stressful email from your boss is not the same as a snarling wolf ready to attack, it is important to release any built-up tension from the day through exercise. Physical activities like yoga, stretching and walking especially help to lower cortisol levels.

3. Distract yourself

Constantly thinking about your troubles can make you feel anxious. And just thinking about feeling anxious can make you even more anxious. The answer is distraction.

Listening to guided meditations, reading a good book and spending quality time with your family can help your brain relax and relieve stress and anxiety.

4. Therapy

You can go for therapy if you feel like you need extra help to reduce anxiety attacks at night. You may need to go for a few sessions to identify the root cause of your anxiety and to learn how to manage it. You will be surprised to see just how much relief a single session can provide.

5. Write down your worries

Grab a pen and paper, your notebook, or even your mobile phone and write down everything that is making you anxious. Getting your worries out of your head and onto paper (or the cloud) can help your mind shut down easier at night and reduce the chances of waking up from anxiety attacks.

We can’t always avoid stressful events, family problems, or financial difficulties. Nor can we always protect our loved ones, like our children, from being affected by symptoms, such as sleep anxiety. But we can take back control of our sleep by taking positive action, like exercising more, journaling, or going for therapy.

And remember: just breathe.