Sleep and Anxiety
For many of our Pzizz users, the major source of insomnia and poor sleep is a disease called “too much thinking;” people lie awake at night unable to shut off their brains.
For some, this might involve innocent thoughts like a check-list of things to do or a recap of the day’s conversations and events.
For others, a racing mind might regularly include more worrisome topics, leading to feelings of deep anxiety and panic.
These stressful thoughts are difficult to shut off, making sleep a seemingly unattainable goal. The worry that you can’t get to sleep contributes even more to the feelings of anxiety, and a hopeless cycle is formed! But take a deep breath and relax! We’re going to cover some natural ways to reduce anxiety and help you get the restful, restorative sleep you deserve.
What is Anxiety?
Everyone gets anxious from time to time, whether there is a difficult test at school, financial problems, family drama or a work deadline. This is normal, but can still prevent us from getting a good night’s sleep.
An anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is when anxiety begins to continually interfere with your ability to lead a normal life. Anxiety disorders can cause constant and overwhelming worry and fear. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including but not limited to:
Characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things. Individuals with GAD find it difficult to control their worry. They may worry more than seems warranted about actual events, or may expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern.
Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous, seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. Panic attacks occur unexpectedly, sometimes even during sleep.
The extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations. The anxiety can interfere with daily routines, occupational performance, or social life, making it difficult to complete school, interview and get a job, and have friendships and romantic relationships.
A lasting and unreasonable fear caused by the presence or thought of a specific object or situation that usually poses little or no danger. Exposure to the object or situation bring about an immediate reaction, causing the person to endure intense anxiety or to avoid the object or situation altogether.
Post traumatic Stress Disorder is a serious potentially debilitating condition that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist incident, sudden death of a loved one, war, violent personal assault, or other life-threatening event. Symptoms can include anxiety, depression, flashbacks and nightmares.
These conditions often require help and treatment from medical professionals, and can be the cause of frequent episodes of poor sleep.
Treat Anxiety Naturally without Medication
There are quite a few easy, natural ways to lessen anxiety and help you fall asleep faster. But before we get there, it’s good to know why we should consider treating anxiety without prescription medication.
First, anti-anxiety medications can have some serious side effects. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Zoloft, Prozac, and Paxil are used to treat depression and anxiety by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain; these can have some serious side effects including nausea, insomnia, diarrhea, nervousness, emotional numbness, blunted emotions and sexual dysfunction to name a few.
Alternatively, Benzodiazepines, like Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium, are used to treat anxiety by reducing abnormal electrical activity in the brain; they are essentially tranquilizers used to treat acute panic attacks. In addition to possible side effects like dizziness, nausea, confusion, fatigue, and nightmares, benzodiazepines can cause physical dependency and can be easily abused.
Second, recent research suggests that, for anxiety disorders, short term structured learning-based treatments (like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) regularly outperform medication treatments. This is especially true for long-term results. By teaching your brain not to panic, you treat the cause rather than the symptoms. Learn more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy here.
Even if you do not have an anxiety disorder, training yourself to conquer negative, worrying thoughts will help ensure peace of mind and restful sleep for a lifetime.
Treat Anxiety with Breathing: It’s That Simple
When you are feeling stressed and anxious, you may notice some familiar but uncomfortable symptoms: your muscles tense, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and your heart beats more quickly. Your adrenal glands have released adrenaline into your system. This is your body preparing to respond to a danger, real or imagined, through the “fight or flight” response. This response is rather helpful if you have to fight off or flee from a bear in the woods. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to everyday stressors like deadlines and family problems, producing the “fight or flight” response for not-so-life-threatening situations.
Purposeful, deep breathing exercises are an easy way to inform your body that there is no real danger. Deep, slow belly breathing using your diaphragm activates the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for “rest and digest” mode), which relaxes us. While yogis have long since incorporated breathwork, or pranayama, into their practice to intentionally manipulate mood and energy levels, you don’t need to be a breathing expert to tell your body to relax. In fact, you only need to remember the “three-part breath.” Yogis call it dirga pranayama; it involves finding a relaxed position, then inhaling deeply and slowly, first into the belly, then the ribcage, then into the top of the chest. Exhale in the reverse order: first out of the top of the chest, then the ribcage, then the bottom of the belly. And repeat! Integrative Health expert Dr. Weil teaches a similar breathing technique, the 4–7–8 Breath, which places less emphasis on the location of the breath and more emphasis on the timing of the breath (4 seconds of inhale, 7 seconds of breath-holding, and 8 seconds of exhale). Try both to see which works best for you!
Reduce Anxiety with Exercise
This is not news, perhaps, but exercise is an excellent stress-reliever! According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, studies have found that “regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self esteem.” Remember the stress hormone adrenaline released from your “fight-or-flight” response? Exercise naturally reduces this hormone, allowing your body back into a state of equilibrium and relaxation. In addition, physical activity helps release those feel-good neurotransmitters called endorphins, making you feel happier and less anxious. Aerobic activities also have the added benefit of allowing you to think of something other than what you might be worried about, serving as a form of active meditation.
You don’t need to run a marathon to get the benefits of exercise, either. Go on a hike, go to a yoga session, or play a game of tennis with a friend — whatever you enjoy! Any form of exercise will help with stress management, and you’ll get all of the other added health benefits along with it.
Meditation and Mindfulness to Manage Anxiety
Meditation is becoming an increasingly popular approach to managing stress, and more and more scientific studies are backing up its effectiveness. Brain imaging has allowed neuroscientists to determine that meditation can actually change your brain for the better. In a study performed by Dr. Sara Lazar, neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, after just eight weeks of meditation (meditating 40 minutes per day), subjects had physically altered their brains: they had grown areas of their brain associated with empathy, compassion, learning, memory and emotional regulation (posterior cingulate, left hippocampus, temporo parietal junction), and shrunken the part of the brain associated with anxiety, fear, and stress (amygdala).
Buddhist monks have actually been training their brains in this way for centuries. At the recommendation of the Dalai Lama, neuroscientist Richard Davidson from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at University of Wisconsin, Madison studied the brains of eight practitioners who had spent over 34,000 hours meditating. What they found was that meditation had allowed the monks’ brains to become more plastic, more adaptable and accepting of change and stressors.
Thankfully we don’t have to practice meditation for 34,000 hours to prevent anxiety. At Wake Forest School of Medicine, Fadel Zeidan and Robert C. Coghill found that after just four days of 20-minute practice of mindfulness meditation (the Buddhist practice called shamatha), volunteers reported a 57% reduction in pain unpleasantness to a hot probe stimulus. After only four days, volunteers’ brains had begun to respond to the meditative practice! Like any endeavor, the more you practice, the easier it will become and the better you will be.
But, where to begin? It is important to find the best one that fits your needs and spirituality. Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital, recommends mindfulness meditation for treating anxiety. For beginners, learn about the meditation basics and search the many websites, YouTube videos, and apps that offer meditation instruction. For those suffering from more severe anxiety or chronic pain, consider a course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction through your healthcare provider. It is perhaps no surprise that MBSR has been found to be very effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders.
Natural Anti-anxiety Foods and Supplements
With all of the foods, teas, supplements and nutraceuticals available to “treat” anxiety, it’s difficult to determine what works and what is purely snake oil. Our research suggests there are a few consumables that may help with anxiety; here is what we found:
Having a generally healthy diet with all of the right foods and vitamins is a good place to start to prevent anxiety. We all know the feeling of being “hangry”: anxious, jittery, and irritable because we haven’t eaten lately. Be sure to eat enough proteins and complex carbohydrates to keep blood sugar steady throughout the day.
Some studies suggest eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can reduce anxiety. It’s certainly worth a try, because these foods are delicious and help ward off heart disease! The foods highest in omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseeds, fish like salmon and mackerel, walnuts, edamame and tofu, chia seeds and oysters.
The amino acid tryptophan is thought to play an important role in our brain chemistry, including anxiety and depression, because it is a precursor to the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin. Tryptophan supplements are advertised to help with anxiety, but their efficacy is unproven. So many foods are already high in tryptophan (like eggs, spirulina pastas, codfish, soybeans, poultry and oats), that with a healthy, varied diet, it is likely that you are already getting enough tryptophan.
In recent years, researchers have begun exploring the connection between healthy gut flora (the right balance of “good” bacteria in your digestive tract) and mental health. Yes, you read that correctly. Healthy gut bacteria may be a way to prevent anxiety. In a study at Oxford University, neuroscientists found that after taking “prebiotics” (non-digestible fiber compounds that are food for good bacteria) for three weeks, subjects were able to more easily ignore negative stimuli and pay more attention to positive stimuli. In other words, after taking prebiotic supplements, subjects were less anxious when given negative information. Subjects also had lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone associated with anxiety, in their systems. Likewise, another French study demonstrated that, after two weeks, the administration of supplements with two probiotic strains reduced anxiety-like behavior in test rats and also alleviated psychological distress in human volunteers. Probiotics and prebiotics can be eaten as food or taken as supplements. Foods high in probiotics include sauerkraut, sourdough bread, kefir and yogurt, miso soup, tempeh, and soft cheeses. Foods high in prebiotics are chicory root, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, onions, asparagus, bananas, leeks, oats, and barley.
Some natural herbs and spices have shown promise in the treatment of anxiety as well. While many homeopathic herbs are sold online and in stores, not all of them have been scientifically studied or found to be effective for treating anxiety. Many websites recommend skullcap, ashwagandha, valerian, St. John’s Wart and ginkgo biloba, but most studies have not confirmed their efficacy. Chamomile tea may help reduce anxiety a modest amount. Passionflower has also been shown to have a positive effect on the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Kava root extract has been proven to reduce anxiety greatly; however, other studies have indicated that it may cause liver damage, so its use is not usually recommended by medical professionals. Be sure to discuss any herbal supplements with your doctor to avoid adverse reactions with other medications.
If you happen to live in one of the U.S. states that has legalized medicinal marijuana, then perhaps you have considered using medical marijuana for anxiety? After all, tetrahydrocannabinoid (THC), one of the chemicals in marijuana, is well known to create the temporary happy, relaxed feeling we might associate with the drug. However, to date, studies have been limited as to the effects of marijuana on anxiety disorders. Of the few studies, some have indicated that marijuana may make anxiety symptoms of panic and paranoia worse and long term use may eventually cause memory loss and cognitive impairment. For short term use, reactions to the drug vary; some find marijuana with low doses of THC very relaxing. Again, be sure to talk with your doctor about the use of marijuana to treat anxiety effectively.
One more thing…
If you’ve made it this far through the article, then you know now there are quite a few ways to treat anxiety without using medication. While these methods have been found effective by some, not everything might be effective for you, or at least not right away. Be patient with your new breathing, exercise, meditation, and eating habits. Be patient with yourself. With patience and practice, you will be able to confront more easily the stresses of your life and relieve anxiety, and in turn get better sleep, naturally.