Anxiety and insomnia are certainly related, though questions remain about this combination of symptoms. It’s not unusual for a person with occasional anxiety to suffer from difficulty falling or staying asleep, but there’s also recent suggestion that poor sleep may have a role in how anxious people feel. Depression and insomnia are being studied extensively and early research suggests that insomnia may be one of the biggest predictors for developing depressive conditions. Since biochemically, anxiety and depression are similar, no one has conclusively determined if anxiety causes insomnia or vice versa.
The function of certain body mechanisms helps explain part of the relationship between anxiety and insomnia. When people are under occasional or chronic stress, the body produces hormones like adrenaline that are also produced during the fight/flight response. From an evolutionary standpoint, these were once extremely important when humans had to get out of life-threatening situations quickly, and they energize the body.
Unfortunately, humans also produce these in response to most stressful situations and some people have sensitive systems that overproduce these hormones at all times. Fight/flight response hormones are antithetical to sleeping and the body may feel too energized to settle down and sleep. For people with anxiety disorder, it may be hard to fall asleep or stay asleep most of the time because the body is producing too much of these hormones and other chemicals like serotonin may not be present in adequate supply to regulate the extra stress.
Most people have had an experience of feeling stressed out at bedtime and instead of being able to sleep soundly, they have trouble going to sleep. Alternately, some have anxiety and insomnia that causes frequent waking or early waking without being able to return to sleep. All people will have occasional anxiety and probably the occasional bad night’s sleep, and this is not medically concerning in most cases. It becomes medically concerning if a person begins to miss sleep regularly due to worries.
Those experiencing high stress or who have conditions like panic or generalized anxiety disorder report losing sleep regularly. Additionally, a number of people regularly suffering insomnia report higher levels of stress or anxiety. Either condition seems to possibly cause the other, which leaves physicians in a quandary on how to treat both symptoms.
Most physicians take a two-pronged approach, recommending therapy to help reduce stress and medication to help alleviate sleep problems or anxiety conditions. It’s not yet clear if treating only one problem is equally as effective as addressing the two problems together. At present, a holistic approach appears to make sense to treat all aspects and possible causes of anxiety and insomnia.