Anxiety insomnia: how does anxiety cause sleepless nights?

February 4, 2021 6 mins read
Anxiety insomnia: how does anxiety cause sleepless nights?

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to anxiety insomnia. The good news is that if your insomnia is caused by anxiety, and you can reduce your anxiety, your insomnia problems can go away. So there’s hope.

The bad news is that reducing your anxiety will take time, patience and effort on your part, but feeling calmer before bed and reducing insomnia will make all the effort worthwhile.

So how does anxiety cause sleepless nights? And what can you do to manage it?

Is there a link between anxiety and insomnia?

There’s a strong link between anxiety and sleep insomnia. Having anxiety can keep you up at night and make you wake up in the middle of the night or early morning hours, which can quickly develop into insomnia. The problem can also originate with insomnia. Sleepless nights lead to higher cortisol levels, which can make you feel anxious and stressed.

What causes anxiety?

Many things can trigger anxiety. While there isn’t a single cause that can be identified and addressed, it’s accepted that anxiety increases because we become aware of the dangers around us – the fight-or-flight response.

We’ve invented many things to stress about (like admin, email, politics and getting enough social media followers). The body cannot tell the difference between a scary email or a lion attack. If you can become aware that, in times when you struggle to stay calm, your body is just in fight-or-flight mode and perceives danger. You can tell your mind that it is not a lion, but just a silly email that won’t even matter in the greater scheme of things.

If you’re in fight-or-flight mode, you’re not going to feel like sleeping. Your body is going to want to fight or take flight. Sleeping won’t be a priority.


If you’re not sleeping at night, one of the reasons could be that you’re struggling to unwind after a stressful day, working late hours and constantly thinking about work. It is important to develop strategies to unwind and let go of work at the end of the day.

Social triggers

Humans are social creatures. But social situations can be stressful for many. Examples of social anxiety triggers include meeting new people, small talk, being the center of attention, teasing, and being in larger groups of people than you’re comfortable with.

Traumatic life events

Anxiety can arise (either temporarily or long term) from life events like being bullied in school, divorce, a death in the family, losing your job or being in an accident.

Bad things will happen, this we know. But it is important to learn how to manage your anxiety so that it won’t affect other aspects of your life, like your sleep quality.

Too much caffeine

If coffee is more than just a beverage to you at this point, and caffeine is practically your blood type, your love of the good stuff could be the reason why you feel so anxious.

Caffeine is a stimulant and can make you feel jittery and anxious. You can switch to decaffeinated drinks to see if you feel less anxious overall.

Stressing about the future

They say that depression is living in the past, and anxiety is living in the future. You would think that being in the present moment wouldn’t be too hard for most people, but many people worldwide struggle with it.

Whenever you find yourself worrying about the future, try your best to bring your attention back to the present moment.

Low blood sugar

Are you feeling anxious before bed? Maybe you need to eat something. Low blood sugar levels will cause a spike in cortisol levels. It is the main stress hormone, and when your levels spike, you can feel anxious.

If this happens while you’re asleep, it can wake you up and make it hard to fall asleep again. If you skip dinner, have a dinner that is too small, or eat a meal that is high in sugar and high glycemic carbohydrates, it can make your blood sugar levels drop, make you feel anxious and make it hard to fall asleep.

How to manage anxiety insomnia

Here are some tips on how to manage nighttime anxiety to improve your insomnia:

Breathing exercises

You can do breathing exercises anywhere, and they are free to do. You can experiment with different breathing exercises to see what works best for you.

Bringing your awareness to your breath can help you return to the present moment when anxiety has your mind stuck in the future.

Meditate and practice mindfulness

Meditation can help you to relax and stay calm so that the voice of reason can tell you everything is fine and you can relax and fall asleep.

This also helps you train yourself to be mindful and in the present moment.

Write down what makes you anxious

If you’re going to reduce your anxiety and address the underlying causes, you will need to identify the different things that trigger your anxiety so that you can develop strategies to either reduce the frequency of those triggers in your life or to change your response to those triggers.

For example, if your anxiety gets triggered by having an endless to-do list and you lie awake at night thinking about all the things you have on your plate, instead of just lying there thinking about what makes you anxious, why not do things like:

  • Journal and write down your thoughts and feelings, so they go from swimming around in your head to being stored on paper.
  • Make a list of things you need to do the next day, so you can reduce your fear of forgetting something.
  • Give yourself a headstart for the next day. You could do things like put your clothes for the next day next to your bed, pack school lunches the night before and write out your ideal schedule.

Exercise for anxiety relief

Exercise is one of the greatest anti-anxiety treatments out there. When the fight-or-flight response is triggered, your body secretes cortisol and adrenalin to help you fight or run.

Just moving your body for a few minutes after a stressful day or a taxing event can help calm you down. Strength exercises like weightlifting offer quick relief from anxiety, while if you do cardio regularly over a few weeks, that will also start to have wonderful anti-anxiety effects.

Follow a healthy diet

Reduce your intake of caffeine and clean up your diet. If you’re more anxious in general, you do not want to make it worse by following an unhealthy diet high in sugar, which increases in adrenalin.

Sugar leads to energy crashes, and when your blood sugar levels are low, your cortisol levels increase. The unstable blood sugar levels could make you more anxious in general by contributing to elevated cortisol levels.

Learn to relax

Make a list of at least 5 things that help you relax and help bring you some relief from anxiety. Every individual is different, and what is relaxing for you might be stressful for another. For example, some people might find horse riding quite relaxing, while others might be a little bit more anxious when doing so.

The idea of feeling calm before bed might seem like a blissful dream, but even after just a week of following a nighttime relaxation routine, you could already start to enjoy the positive effects. You can sleep well if you can become more mindful, improve your diet and lifestyle, move your body and breathe.