Anxiety and Insomnia: A Vicious Cycle

sleep and anxiety

Is stress keeping you up at night? If when you settle down for the night you struggle to turn off anxious thoughts or find yourself worrying, you’re not alone. And while these issues are common, they are not fun. Stress and anxiety can lead to sleeplessness or insomnia. The resulting exhaustion can lead to or magnify anxiety. It’s a frustrating cycle and one that’s difficult to break. 

Natural remedies can help. Essential oil blends like Zen MONQ can help calm your mind and body reducing stress and symptoms of anxiety. Blends like Sleepy, with chamomile and lavender, may also induce relaxation and help coax the body to sleep.

Stress, Anxiety, and Insomnia Go Together

Stress is a natural response to difficult circumstances, and it’s actually healthy to feel some stress when you’re under pressure. The problem comes when you experience too much stress, for too long. Chronic stress can cause physiological changes which can make you more prone to ongoing anxiety. There is a clinical difference between stress and anxiety. Where stress is a normal response, anxiety is something more debilitating that is characterized by intrusive thoughts, tension, and physical changes. People who are suffering from anxiety may avoid certain situations, or behave differently to the point that it impairs their ability to lead a normal life. 1

Sleep disruption is a common symptom of mental health difficulties. Even people who have not reached the stage where they feel the need to get a diagnosis for their anxiety may have noticed that when they are stressed or worried it makes it hard for them to sleep. The challenge is figuring out whether you can’t sleep because you are anxious, or you are anxious because you can’t sleep. Working out the cause will help you to alleviate the problem.

Which Came First?

There has been a lot of research done into sleep problems, and it has been found that anxiety and insomnia are linked and that the problems are bidirectional. 2 Anxiety can disrupt your sleep, and insomnia can interfere with your mood.

Those who suffer from anxiety disorders are more prone to insomnia, nocturnal panic attacks, and nightmares. The anxiety makes it hard for the sufferer to sleep, and then because they are struggling to sleep they are more likely to suffer from prolonged anxiety. Sleep disturbances impair your body’s physical and mental recovery and therefore make it much harder for you to maintain mental clarity and balance. This makes anxiety worse, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In contrast, those who suffer from poor sleep for other reasons—  for example, because of poor sleep hygiene, or because they work nights, have a new baby, or live in a noisy area—  are more likely to end up developing anxiety because of the sleep deprivation. Those people, when they are able to get a good night’s sleep on a consistent basis, will usually find that their anxiety starts to clear up.

What Happens When You Sleep?

Sleep, in most people, follows a cycle of repeating 90-minute patterns, where you will spend some time in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, and some time in deep, or non-rapid eye movement, sleep.

You will start off by becoming disengaged from your surroundings as you doze off. Your body temperature will fall and your blood pressure will drop too. Your breathing will become slower, and your muscles will start to relax. Once you’ve entered deep sleep, you will start to experience tissue growth and muscle repair. This is the time when your energy stores are replenished, and hormones such as Growth Hormone are released. The period of deep sleep is the period that is most important for your physical health. If you exercise, it’s the part of sleep that helps you recover and get stronger. If you’ve got cuts, bumps or bruises, this is the period where most of their repair will happen.

After a deep sleep, you’ll experience REM sleep. This is where your brain is at its most active, and where you dream. This is the period where your mind processes things, and it’s important to have some REM sleep for your mental health. Regular, short naps might stop you from dozing off during the day, and some combat specialists in the military use a sleep pattern of brief naps throughout the day to try to go long periods without sleep, but this is not something that is sustainable for long periods. For your physical and mental health, it is best to get long periods of unbroken sleep.

Coping With Insomnia

If you are struggling with insomnia, and find that your inability to sleep leaves you anxious at night, there are a few things that you can do to tame those anxious thoughts, and help yourself doze off:


Try to Exercise During the Day

People who exercise regularly report better sleep quality than people who are sedentary. Even going for a brisk walk in the afternoon can help you to fall asleep at night. If you suffer from chronic insomnia then you may find that exercising a few times a week will help you to relax. Exercise also releases endorphins, which can help to improve your mood and may reduce general anxiety symptoms.

Take Some Time to Relax in the Evening

Avoid doing stressful activities before bedtime. Instead, take some time to wind down for a while. Step away from the computer, avoid watching action or scary TV shows and avoid doing intensive chores. Instead, take a bath, spend some time reading a book, or just sit and listen to some soothing music. You may want to try meditation or very gentle yoga as a relaxation method. Even just a couple of minutes of mindful meditation can help you to relax.

Write Things Down

If your mind races with things to do, problems to solve, and unanswered questions, take time to write those thoughts down before bedtime. Revisit the concerns in the morning, if they are still there. 

girl drinking tea in chair to help relax and sleep

Don’t Stay in Bed if You Can’t Sleep

If you really can’t sleep—tossing and turning after 20 minues—get up and do something. Drink some caffeine-free herbal tea, read a book, or draw. Avoid using your phone or a computer, because the light from the screen can trick your brain into thinking that it’s time to wake up.

Try Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy and alternative medicine can be hugely beneficial for people suffering from sleeplessness and insomnia. Interventions such as massage, yoga, and aromatherapy have been found in studies to be helpful. 3

The evidence base for aromatherapy, at least with some popular and common oils, is clear. One recent study into the effects of lavender in combating insomnia and depression in college-age women found that using lavender fragrance like that in Sleepy can help to improve sleep quality, reduce sleep disturbance, and alleviate depression. 4

Lavender is one of the most popular essential oils, and it is known for calming nerves, reducing stress and helping with anxiety and insomnia. There are many other oils that offer similar benefits. Chamomile, for example, is often used to help people who are suffering from nerves or insomnia. Systemic reviews of aromatherapy oils show that there are some clear and quantifiable benefits to the different oils. The ketones, phenols, and terpenes that are found in plants are what give the oils their distinctive odors, and they have the potential to be antimicrobial, immune boosting, and to have therapeutic benefits on the nervous system too. 5

When Should You Get Help For Sleep Disorders or Anxiety?

Insomnia is something that most people will suffer from at some point. If you can’t sleep because your newborn baby is waking up, that’s a normal thing, and while it’s a good idea to find ways to work around it, there is a clear cause, so there’s not so much reason to worry.  But, worries that are unfounded or that we bring upon ourselves also affect sleep. It would be wise to find ways to make your work schedule less troublesome, because it is not healthy to feel so stressed that it affects your sleep, even for a short time, but you can at least feel comfortable in the knowledge that your stress response is normal.

If you feel persistent stress or anxiety, talk with your healthcare professional. You may need to change your sleep habits, or you may need some help to address your anxiety.

Modern Life Makes Sleeping Hard

Modern life makes it difficult for us to switch off. Day and night cycles promoted regular daily sleep-wake patterns. They would work during the day and sleep at night. If it was cold or the weather was unpleasant, they would take shelter. Communication was limited to those who were the closest to them, and if they were in a stressful situation, they could just walk away.

Living in or near a forest was pretty relaxing, too. Food was abundant. Worries were limited to basic survival, not manmade distractions.  Exposure to terpenes from plants in the forest helped to support human health. Terpenes can be neuroprotective, anti-tumorigenic, and anti-inflammatory. 6

Contrast that with modern life. We find it harder to leave work at the office and work longer hours. We can communicate with others 24/7, obsessing over disagreements and spending endless hours on the phone, social media, and other outlets. Sometimes we put ourselves into echo chambers, where we will see only people who share our worldview. This can create a stressful environment because social media exposes us to people who tell us that the bad guys— whoever they may be— are out to harm our way of life. If you see that message day after day, it can become quite stressful.

Today’s diets aren’t limited to what is in season or easily foraged. We have unlimited access to processed foods, stimulants, and alcohol, all of which can manipulate our hormones and mood.

Further, we don’t maintain the same sleep-wake cycles as our ancestors. Shift work and lifestyles keep us up at night or may cause us to wake before sunrise. People travel across time zones, forcing our body clocks to flex around our lives—work, sporting events, popular culture events. This is not a natural way of living, and if we try to sustain it for too long, our minds and bodies pay the price.

If you feel like you’re starting to feel the effects of fighting against your body clock, don’t despair. It’s not too late to start undoing the damage. Make tonight the night that you turn your computer off early, put your phone on silent, and enjoy a relaxing bath with some aromatherapy oils. Get a good night’s sleep tonight, and tomorrow night, and start a new, productive cycle. You can use MONQ’s Sleepy personal aromatherapy diffuser to help kickstart this process of getting your sleep under control soon.

Rachel Donovan

By Rachel Donovan

Rachel is a freelance writer who enjoys writing and researching interesting and new topics. As a California native, she can be found spending her time on the beach with a good book.

Favorite MONQ blend: Ocean

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The above information relates to studies of specific individual essential oil ingredients, some of which are used in the essential oil blends for various MONQ diffusers. Please note, however, that while individual ingredients may have been shown to exhibit certain independent effects when used alone, the specific blends of ingredients contained in MONQ diffusers have not been tested. No specific claims are being made that use of any MONQ diffusers will lead to any of the effects discussed above.  Additionally, please note that MONQ diffusers have not been reviewed or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. MONQ diffusers are not intended to be used in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, prevention, or treatment of any disease or medical condition. If you have a health condition or concern, please consult a physician or your alternative health care provider prior to using MONQ diffusers. MONQ blends should not be inhaled into the lungs.

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