The end of 2018 is nearly upon us. For many of us, this means happy holidays. Days filled with sunshine and laughter. Lazing about the pool, having cool drinks and not a lot to do with our days except for rest and catch up on some lost sleep. But for many more, this is a time of deadlines and of stress. The end of the year reports are due. There are progress reports to be written. And there are some of us that might get (or lose) a Christmas bonus, depending on our performance. For a lot of us, the end of the year is a time of anxiety and stress.

And many of us struggle to fall asleep at night. Because our brains just won’t stop thinking. There is just too much to do and too little time. How am I ever going to pass that supplementary exam? Will I be able to look my boss in the eye tomorrow morning and tell him or her that the report they need is not done yet? It is questions like this that keep us up at night. For some of us it is something completely different. Will my girlfriend stay faithful on her two month trip to Southeast Asia? Or maybe you are worried that your boyfriend will take that overseas job offer and leave you behind, soon to be forgotten.

I recently heard an ER doctor say that suicide rates tend to go up at the end of November every year around Gauteng. Sure, the holidays might bring a lot of us joy, but it is clearly also a time of anxiety for many others. But what does this have to do with sleep? How does anxiety and sleep relate to each other? Read on to find out!

Looking Back

Dream signage surrounded sequins

In last week’s blog post we spoke about dreams and how that influences the quality of your sleep. We also mentioned a study that found dreaming too much can cause anxiety and even depression. It is quite fascinating to see how sleep, dreams and depression are interlinked. I would encourage you to go and read the post from last week to see for yourself.

This week, we will be adding on to what we wrote about last week. A lot of you might be wondering why I am continuously hammering on about dreams and anxiety and lack of sleep. I don’t really blame you. But I can tell you this: the new studies about how sleep affects our moods and mindsets at day is fascinating! And a lot of what modern day scientists have to say about the combination of lack of sleep and excessive workloads, and what that combination brings about in our bodies, makes so much sense to me. I just have to tell you about it!

I just want to scream out at the top of my lungs: “Relax! Take it easy! Slow down”!

We are pushing ourselves too far. Putting to much pressure on ourselves, our children, our employees. Just calm down, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth… There we go, doesn’t that feel a lot better?

Why this sudden outburst about slowing down?

people walking on grey concrete floor during daytime

Well the answer is simple, really. And it is not just an idea that I came up with. Science has proved it to be true. So pay attention.

A lack of sleep causes anxiety, and anxiety causes a lack of sleep. So when you overwork yourself, you are busy creating a downward spiral that leads to extreme anxiety disorder. This in turn, can lead to depression. The questions you must ask yourself is this: “Is my job really important enough to get depressed over it”? Or: “Is my good grades so important that I stay up all night to study, three nights in a row”?

And by this I am not trying to say that these things are not important. Please, don’t think that! Work is important. Studies are important. These things are very important. But not more important than sleep. If you have a choice between working late or going to bed, go to bed. It is better for you in the long run.

I’m talking about science, but you ain’t seeing no proof…

Okay fine, here is your proof! In a recent study, conducted at the University of California, postdoctoral researcher, Eti Ben-Simon and his team showed categorically that sleep deprivation has a direct impact on our anxiety levels. Now I’m pretty sure the skeptics out there think this is a pot of nonsense. I mean, how can scientists prove something like that, right?

person lying on ct-scan machine

Negative results

Here is how they did it: At first, the researchers looked at what anxious brainwaves look like. Once they got that information sorted, they got 18 healthy human beings that were willing to be used as guinea pigs, so to speak. These people were kept awake for one night, after which they were exposed to sensitive content. Stuff like child abuse and so on. While they were exposed to this graphic content, their brainwaves were being monitored by an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. What the scientists saw was very interesting.

They observed that all 18 of the test subjects showed a dramatic increase in anxiety levels. And when I say dramatic, I mean dramatic! There was an increased anxiety level of at least 30% in all of the subjects, with some of them showing anxiety levels that bordered on clinical anxiety disorder! The fMRI showed that the part of the brain that deals with emotion was hyperactive after being depraved of sleep for a night. While on the other hand, the part of the brain that deals with negative feelings and emotions was at a near standstill.

Positive results

Luckily, the opposite was also true. The night after their anxious ordeal, all of the patients had a good night’s rest. And the following day, when the same tests were conducted, all of the patients had significantly lower anxiety levels and they could deal with the distressing imagery in a more efficient way.

The conclusion

From these results it seems quite clear that a lack of sleep affects our capacity to deal with stress. It is easier to fall into constant bouts of anxiety and even depression if we do not sleep enough.

Some other interesting facts about the study

It was also found that those subjects that had more non-REM sleep during the second night of testing handled the sensitive content of the following morning better than those people that underwent more REM sleep. This finding of theirs correlates with the studies I quoted last week. All of these studies have in common the fact that people who dream more are more prone to become anxious and depressed.

That is not a very happy thought. To be honest, I find it quote disconcerting, because I have a lot of vivid dreams. I can say with certainty that I remember at least one dream every second night. If you also have vivid dreams that you remember, you should maybe do some introspection to try to find out if you are anxious about something. A lot of the time we are anxious and we don’t even know it.

For instance, I found out that I am anxious about some stuff by just asking myself a whole lot of random questions. I wrote down a question, and then I wrote down a reply. It was almost as if I was my own psychiatrist. And it helped. Start out by asking yourself what you had for breakfast. Then write down the answer as truthfully as you can. From there, you can ask deeper questions like: “what do I like about my work”? Or, “what do I dislike about my work”? “Do I enjoy my studies”? “What is it that I enjoy about my studies”?

This process may not hold a lot of appeal right now. But give it a try! It worked for me. Maybe it will work for you as well!

Sleep and anxiety

man beside white frame window feeling anxiety

So between what we read last week and what we read tonight, it should be clear that there is a correlation between the amount of sleep we get and our anxiety levels. (Also, the music we listen to can have an influence on our anxiety levels. Right now I am listening to the Westworld Soundtrack and man, is it increasing my anxiety levels!).

Here’s a tip. Don’t listen to the Westworld Soundtrack before you go to bed. Rather listen to some soothing sounds, like rain falling on the roof or the distant sounds of thunder. Go check out Calmsound to get your variety of free, natural sounds to fall asleep to.

Another tip. When your body feels tired and it tells you to fall asleep. Go to bed and fall asleep. It is a lot healthier to listen to your body and to sleep, than to sit around trying to be productive in the dead of night. The chances are that you will slip up in some way anyhow and that you will have to redo the work in the morning anyway. So why waste time and energy when you can just go to bed and do a proper job in the morning?

Last tip for tonight – if you can’t calm down and you keep on feeling anxious, try out the Headspace app. It is a free app that takes you through the basic steps of meditation and has some very useful tips on calming your mind. It shows you how to calm your mind through breathing and has helped me to relax many times when I could not sleep at night because of impeding exams.

Sleep well and don’t overwork yourselves!