Did you know that sleep and anxiety go hand in hand? There's a common misconception that people with anxiety are always on edge, but the truth is they're often exhausted. In fact, studies show those who suffer from chronic anxiety have shorter REM cycles than those who don't as well as more fragmented sleep patterns. Sleep deprivation can lead to increased feelings of stress and decreased mental clarity which only perpetuates the cycle. So what can we do about it?
Everyone has encountered anxiety at some point. A thumping heart, sweaty palms, and a racing mind. All of these symptoms exist to put your body and mind at full alert, so you’re ready to contend with whatever threat is near you. Whether it’s tied to something specific--work, a test, a relationship--or something more chronic and general, we all know that feeling. For many athletes, this anxiety is tied to the idea of performance. They lay their head down the night before a competition and instead of drifting off, they can’t calm down. No restful sleep, only thoughts and fears. Here we’re going to discuss why this is, and what you can do to prevent anxiety from ruining what should be a gainful night of sleep.
First, let’s identify what anxiety is. Anxiety describes a psychological and physiological state of arousal, where the mind and body are reacting to a perceived threat. Despite thousands of years of evolution molding this system to defend against physical threats, in our highly interpersonal modern societies, this system is frequently hijacked by social threats. Research has found that we are particularly susceptible to anxiety when we are anticipating a performance with a component of “evaluation”(1). Think about public speaking, or playing a sport in front of thousands of people. You’re expected to perform well while all of those people are watching and judging. That would be enough to set off alarm bells for most people.
So, performance anxiety is bad enough while you’re trying to actually perform, but it can also destroy the sleep you need to be at your best. Surveys have shown that among people with insomnia, up to a third are suffering with an anxiety disorder(2). Thankfully, anxiety is a treatable state, especially if it hasn’t reached the level of a disorder. Given that performance anxiety is likely associated with the performance itself, it’s important to distance yourself from the worry-inducing associations. Routines are a powerful tool for falling asleep. Establish a routine that you can follow every night that helps you wind down. This will relax you and create an association for your mind that tells it, “Ok, it’s time to calm down,” no matter what is going on around you.
Especially for athletes who need to travel for their sport, routines are key for recreating your sleep environment while on the road. Whatever your process is, start and end it around the same time every night. Try to dim the lights in your living space when the sun sets, so your body is more naturally aligned with day and night cycles. Avoid your phone or computer, or anything you associate with stress and worry. Think about what relaxing activities you like to do, and find the ones that work best for your sleep.
If you’re already stuck in a deep rut of sleeplessness, you may need to take more drastic measures to reset your body for sleep. Dr. Ashley Mason, a researcher at UC San Francisco, recommends taking steps like what she calls “Stimulus Control”. This means that in bed you engage in nothing but “sleep and sex” (3). No phones or tablets, no books, and no worrying. If you want to do something that isn’t either of the two approved activities, you’ll need to leave your bed and take care of it. This is to avoid creating any more damaging mental associations that can leave your mind running while you’re in bed. The more serious your sleep disturbances are, the more serious the solutions should be.
While anxiety can strike anyone at any time, performance anxiety for athletes can be doubly crippling. It can reduce their ability during performance, as well as reduce their ability to sleep before a performance, creating a debilitating cycle of struggle. Understanding the basics of anxiety and how it impacts sleep is the first step in breaking out of this cycle. Know your body, set your routines, and turn that anxiety into controlled excitement!
- Rowland, David L., and Jacques J. D. M. van Lankveld. “Anxiety and Performance in Sex, Sport, and Stage: Identifying Common Ground.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 10, 16 July 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6646850/, 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01615.
- Staner, Luc. “Sleep and Anxiety Disorders.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, vol. 5, no. 3, Sept. 2003, pp. 249–258, 10.31887/dcns.2003.5.3/lstaner.
- Patrick, Rhonda. FoundMyFitness Podcast. FoundMyFitness, 1 Sept. 2021, disc 067. Podcast.