Tips to deal with sleep anxiety

Amy Gallagher
Senior Sleep Physiologist at Cromwell Hospital
06 March 2024
Next review due March 2027

We’ve all struggled to sleep at some point. But if you regularly struggle to sleep, you might find yourself feeling anxious at bedtime. This can make it even harder to get the rest you need. Or if you’re a parent perhaps your child feels anxious and struggles to sleep without your help. Here, I talk about some of the ways you can manage anxiety around sleep.

person sleeping by a mobile phone in bed

What is sleep anxiety?

Sleep anxiety means you worry about falling asleep or staying asleep. And because you’re worrying about how much sleep you’re getting (or not getting), you might end up losing more sleep over it.

Sleep and anxiety are closely linked. It’s hard to drift off if you’re anxious and, if you’re tired the next day, that can make daily life challenging. Studies have shown that getting less sleep than you’re used to can also make you more anxious the next day.

People who have problems sleeping are also more likely to:

  • feel depressed or lonely
  • be irritable
  • struggle to concentrate

Poor sleep has also been linked to long-term (chronic) conditions such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

These are just some of the reasons that sleep is so important for our health and wellbeing.

What are the symptoms of sleep anxiety?

Anxiety can feel different to different people, but there are some common symptoms. If you’re anxious at night, you might experience the following:

  • restlessness
  • increased heart rate
  • light-headedness or dizziness
  • hot flushes
  • sleep problems and insomnia

What causes sleep problems?

If you have sleep anxiety, you’ve probably already had some trouble sleeping. This might be because you have a diagnosed sleep condition such as obstructive sleep apnoea or insomnia. Both of these conditions can interrupt your sleep, leaving you feeling tired the next day.

Or you might find it hard to relax at night because it’s the only time you have to think without distractions. Unfortunately, this means you might find yourself thinking about stressful topics, like money or work, as you’re trying to fall asleep. Over time, you might start to associate your bed with sleepless nights, and that can contribute to feelings of anxiety at bedtime.

If you’ve been having trouble sleeping, you might rely on stimulants like caffeine and sugar to help you get through the day. But it might keep you awake for longer than you realise – the effects of caffeine can last for several hours. And for some people, caffeine makes their anxiety worse.

Alcohol might help you get to sleep, but it can also have negative effects on the quality of your sleep.

Sleep anxiety in younger children can be caused by a fear of sleeping alone, or a fear of the dark.

Tips to help you deal with sleep anxiety

One of the main ways to improve the quality of your sleep is to follow good sleep hygiene. The principle behind this is that you’ll develop habits that help create the best conditions for you to sleep in. Good sleep hygiene includes:

  • going to bed and waking up at around the same time each day – including your days off
  • keeping your bedroom calm, quiet, comfortable, and cool
  • not going to bed until you feel sleepy
  • avoiding alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine near bedtime
  • keeping physically active to boost your physical and mental health, and to help you fall asleep more quickly

Try to follow good sleep hygiene because it can help you fall asleep more easily. This is true in both adults and children, so the tips above may help your child if they’re having trouble sleeping.

Here are some other things you could try to reduce anxiety and help you sleep. Not all of these suggestions will work for everyone. If that happens, you could try something different, or try it at another time.

  • Breathing exercises. If you’re feeling anxious or stressed, try controlling your breathing as this might help to relax you. You could try progressive muscle relaxation exercises, too. These involve tensing different muscles as you inhale, and relaxing them as you breathe out.
  • Reading or writing. If you’re unable to fall asleep after 20 minutes, it can help to get out of bed and do something else. But, try to avoid an activity that involves electronic devices. This is because the blue light from screens is thought to disrupt your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy. Instead, why not read a book or try writing down your thoughts? This might help you to relax and switch off.
  • Keep a sleep diary. If you keep having sleepless nights, you might find it helpful to keep a sleep diary. This may help you to find out what could be affecting your sleep. For example, you might discover that you sleep worse when you have caffeine after a certain time of day. Or that an afternoon nap makes it harder for you to get to sleep in the evening. A sleep diary might not work for everyone - regularly monitoring your sleep may make your anxiety worse.
  • Therapy. If you’ve had insomnia for more than 3 months, CBT-I may help. This is a type of cognitive behavioural therapy that’s aimed at changing the thoughts and behaviours that could be causing your insomnia.

If lack of sleep is affecting your quality of life, speak to your GP. They can help you figure out what’s causing your sleep issues and advise you on how to manage your anxiety. They can also refer you to a sleep clinic.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. You’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Amy Gallagher
Amy Gallagher
Senior Sleep Physiologist at Cromwell Hospital



Sheila Pinion, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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