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How Deep Sleep Reduces Anxiety Levels
When you have anxiety often one of the first things to suffer is your sleep. Insomnia is where it may be difficult for you to drop off to sleep, or perhaps you wake at 3 am with an anxious thought and are then unable to return to sleep. However, the good news is that if we can improve your sleep quality, deep sleep reduces anxiety levels.
So many of us think of sleep as a bit of an inconvenience, something that is reducing our Netflix or work time. Or maybe you think sleeping in the morning is something that lazy people do, rather than get up at sparrow’s fart to exercise. But the shocking truth is that the less you sleep, the earlier you are likely to die. (Thanks for that cheery factoid Professor Matthew Walker, author of “Why we sleep”). This is because sleep is where all the essential maintenance happens to your body and brain.
First, the not-so-good news
Research from UC Berkeley in the USA shows that one sleepless night can increase our anxiety levels up to a whopping 30%. And even 1 hour less than the baseline 7 hours of sleep a night results in poorer mental processes the next day. Well that’s just depressing. But fear not, below you will find 7 ways to increase deep sleep and reduce your anxiety levels.
Sleep is essential for good mental health
Deep sleep is ‘anxiolytic’ i.e. it reduces your anxiety.
Something as simple as getting better quality sleep could help reduce your anxiety levels. How awesome is that!
“Deep sleep had restored the brain’s prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety,” Eti Ben Simon, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley.
So when do we get deep sleep?
In each sleep cycle there are several phases to sleep (see the image below) and you go through these cycles approximately four times in an eight-hour period. However, deep sleep only occurs in the first two cycles of sleep (stage 4) and it is deep sleep which has this anxiolytic (anxiety-relieving) effect.
REM sleep helps you process your feelings
REM sleep (rapid eye movement) is the lightest level of sleep. This is where we dream and most of it happens in the later hours of sleep, especially just as we are about to wake up.
During REM sleep our brain lays down memories. Professor Matthew Walker calls REM sleep ’emotional first aid because is where we (hopefully) let go of some of the emotional charge around our memories. It’s where our brain processes our feelings. (Hmm maybe you should set that alarm 15 mins later so that you get a bit more REM?)
7 ways to increase deep sleep to reduce anxiety
A simple Evening Mind Clearance technique as you lie in bed (3 mins)
There are 3 simple steps to this Evening Mind Clearance technique created by Siimon Reynolds. So as you lie down in bed preparing for sleep, we’ll use the power of positive thinking to reduce anxiety:
- Create a list in your head of things that you are grateful for.
- Forgive anyone who’s annoyed you today (or before).
- Visualise tomorrow going really well. Really picture your day ahead going swimmingly and having a great time. (I’m usually asleep before I get to this point, so my big tip is to turn the reading light off before you start this!)
Some calming techniques for your mind and body
If you find yourself lying in bed awake for over 25 minutes, the advice is that it is preferable for you to get out of bed and go and do something soothing. This is to stop your brain associating being in bed with stress. ‘Something soothing’ might be simple stretching or breathing exercises. Definitely not work, TV or scrolling on your phone – all these activities will wake you up further. Here are a few techniques you could try:
Breathing techniques (free videos)
Slowing your exhale is the key to down-regulating your nervous system (i.e. calming the farm) and getting your body ready for sleep.
I’ve got heaps of breathing exercises on my Resources page – most of which you can do in bed. We all like different things, so find one that you like and make it a regular practice so that your brain starts to know the way.
Guided relaxation (free audios)
Want to feel rested? Guided relaxations are another way to help your nervous system down-shift into that a lovely relaxed state. Try one of the 3 relaxing audio recordings I’ve got on SoundCloud. They’re between 20-30 mins long and you can download them onto your phone.
Avoid alcohol to get more deep sleep
“Booo” I hear you say. I concur, but sadly, although it might make you feel more relaxed initially, that glass of Rosé is a depressant and a sedative and sedation is not the same as sleep.
Alcohol lessens both REM and deep sleep. Which means less of that protective anxiety-alleviating effect. Furthermore, alcohol affects fragments our sleep and the metabolic biproducts suppress REM sleep, which impacts our ability to process our emotions.
Avoid caffeine after 12pm
Again boooh. This really is such a bummer but caffeine has a half-life of 5-6 hours and a quarter-life of 12 hours. Which means that a quarter of the caffeine in that delicious cappucino you had at lunch is still in your brain at 10pm.
Preferably we want our body and mind to calm down in the afternoon and evening so perhaps drink it earlier in the day?
Have a regular routine
The general advice is to get up and go to bed at the same time, even on weekends. The science peeps tell us to avoid vigorous exercise before you need to go to sleep. Ideally you need to give your body time to wind down in the evening which probably means favouring gentle exercise and stretching in the evening instead of boxercise.
In this 10 minute podcast, leading sleep researcher Prof Matthew Walker gives you a life hack for getting an extra 20 mins sleep a night, without even trying..
Listen to Prof Matthew Walker and Dr Rangan Chattejee
Keep your bedroom cool
Your body temperature needs to dip by 1 degree in order for your to fall asleep, so it’s best to keep your bedroom cool. (Easier said than done in a Queensland summer. TIP – if you don’t have aircon, wrap a freezer block in a towel if your ceiling fan isn’t cutting the mustard.)
Talking of temperature… digestion is thermogenic, meaning it raises your body temperature. That’s why they recommend eating at least 3 hours before you need to go to sleep, so that your body temperature is lower.
Dim the lighting and reduce blue light exposure
Keep your lighting dim in the evenings to promote natural circadian rhythms. Especially avoid fluorescent lights because they inhibit the release of melatonin (which makes you want to sleep).
Avoid blue light from technology at least 2 hours before you go to sleep. The blue light affects the release of melatonin. Read more about blue light and sleep here.
And here are 12 other suggestions for calming your mind before you go to sleep.
So there you have it… deep sleep reduces anxiety and hopefully one of those 7 ideas will help increase your ability to access deep sleep. I hope this article helped you.
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