Nighttime Anxiety: Causes and How to Overcome It

We're more susceptible to negative thoughts at night, which can cause anxiety in some people. If anxiety persists, it could negatively affect your well-being.
Nighttime Anxiety: Causes and How to Overcome It

Last update: 04 December, 2020

Nighttime anxiety is the feeling of tension and restlessness at night, specifically as you try to get to sleep. The influx of negative thoughts at night often triggers anxiety, because the brain thinks you’re in danger.

Consequently, the brain responds to this perceived threat by going into survival mode, which sparks physical and mental symptoms. If these symptoms don’t seem to go away, or if they worsen, they can cause serious damage to your mental and physical health.

What is nighttime anxiety?

Nighttime anxiety is an uneasy emotional state that causes tension, stress, and worry. Any kind of perceived danger or threat can trigger anxiety, resulting in physiological and cognitive reactions, and even changes in behavior. As the name suggests, this particular condition happens at night.

An interesting fact about anxiety is that it serves a purpose and exists to help you adapt and survive. Anxiety is a defense mechanism that helps you face life-threatening situations. However, the brain can’t differentiate between real and perceived threats (which can even be intrusive thoughts), thus causing stress and anxiety.

In these cases, your brain is responding to false alarms (threats that aren’t really there) or overestimating the present danger. Thus, if you experience intense nighttime anxiety, or if this anxiety lasts for a long period of time, you might have a pathological condition, otherwise known as an anxiety disorder.   

Anxiety disorders block healthy responses to daily life, generate psychological discomfort, affect your ability to function properly and, in general, require professional help to be solved. Nighttime anxiety can lead to a lack of sleep, which, in turn, can amplify these issues no matter the time of day.

A woman suffering from nighttime anxiety.
Nighttime anxiety can negatively affect sleep patterns and cause insomnia, which can create issues in your daily life.

What are the symptoms?

Nighttime anxiety typically triggers a series of somatic and psychological symptoms at night, right before bed. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms or the same intensity, as they both depend on many factors.

Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety at night are:

  • Increased heart rate: you might have heart palpitations or skipped heartbeat, accompanied by a feeling of suffocation and tightness in the chest.
  • Sweating: profuse, cold, and unrelated to the room’s temperature.

What are the causes?

Anxiety at night can be due to multiple causes, which differ from person to person. An important step to alleviate nighttime anxiety is to identify the problems that underlie these episodes and try to work on them. Some of the most common reasons are the following:

  • Daily stressors: relationship, work or financial problems are all factors that can trigger anxiety crises and panic attacks. Additionally, these invasive thoughts typically occur as you try to relax and fall asleep for the night, making rest nearly impossible.
  • Traumatic events: surviving a catastrophic experience, such as a natural disaster, sexual violence or rape, torture or kidnappings, among others, can severely damage your mental health, which is associated with the more serious symptoms of anxiety. At night, when going to bed, it’s common for the person to relive these traumatic events.
  • Biological influences: genetics play an important role in the appearance of panic attacks. In fact, there are people who are more predisposed to experiencing anxiety than others.
  • Distorted thoughts: the brain’s overestimation of potential threats can trigger anxiety. Since there are few distractions when you’re trying to sleep, you can easily be carried away by these thoughts.

How can I overcome anxiety?

If you have intense feelings of anxiety at night and you experience this regularly, we recommend you seek professional help. It’s possible that you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder, which is most effectively treated with therapy and, in some cases, medicine. However, some people with nighttime anxiety can try relaxation techniques that might help curb anxiety.

Techniques to fight off stress

Engaging in physical activity helps the body to release tension which, in turn, helps you feel more relaxed. If you try to do some form of exercise about two hours before bedtime, you’ll feel more tired and fall asleep more easily.

Similarly, meditation and yoga are two options that seek to teach people to focus on the here and now. This can be helpful in preventing anxiety, but also as a tool to stop a panic attack while it’s happening. Moreover, doing a few stretches before bed can help release tension.

Muscle relaxation techniques and deep breathing exercises are other alternatives. These exercises can relieve muscle tension and help you avoid hyperventilation, two common symptoms of panic attacks.

Routines

Establishing a sleep schedule by going to bed around the same time every night will condition your body to expect sleep. Set a time to shut off electronics and avoid using your bedroom to work or study, which can actually train your brain to associate your room with stress.

Similarly, you should stay away from stimulating substances such as alcohol and caffeine at night. These can prime your brain and body for anxiety due to their effects on the nervous system.

Woman on her phone in a dark room.
Using your bedroom for work or studying is counterproductive to a healthy sleep routine.

Before you go to sleep, try to think positively

We’re susceptible to negative thoughts right before we go to sleep at night. This is because it’s typically the time of day when our minds are free to wander. Without much to focus on, negative thoughts could seep in and cause us to feel anxious.

If nighttime anxiety becomes frequent and more intense, it can be dangerous for your health. Therefore, it’s important to recognize the problem early on and seek out the proper tools to help you overcome anxiety.

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