Your question: Why do I get anxiety at night and can’t sleep?

vMy reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Anxiety is a universal phenomenon, which we all need in small doses. Anxiety allows you to be alert to the threats of everyday life, demanding a response accordingly. For example, anxiety is what makes you push yourself and strive to do well on a stressful exam.

However, anxiety becomes a problem when it is too intense and constant, causing complications in areas of your daily life such as work, eating or sleeping.

Insomnia associated with anxiety is quite common. It has been shown (1) that sleeping problems have a high correlation with anxiety. I’m sure it has happened to you many times: you arrive tired from work, school or home activities, you get ready to sleep, but your anxiety prevents you from doing so.

This is due to anxious thoughts, also called automatic thoughts (2). They appear without you being able to control them, and they usually bring negative and worrying messages. Thus, you may be calm, about to go to sleep, and anxious thoughts about financial debt or work worries suddenly appear and rob you of sleep.

Anxious thoughts are related to your way of seeing the world, and to modify them, it is necessary that you constantly check and question what worries you in your life. It is not an easy job, but it is possible, as well as necessary to improve your quality of sleep, and therefore, your overall quality of life.

Why does anxiety cause insomnia?

There are different reasons why you might be waking up feeling scared or anxious, some of these are:

Daily stress

At night you are more likely to have overwhelming and anxious thoughts than during the day (3). This happens because at night you have less stimuli to capture your attention compared to the daytime, therefore, just before bedtime you may ruminate stressful thoughts over and over again, causing your nighttime anxiety.


Caffeine stimulates your nervous system and puts you in a state of alertness similar to feeling anxious. If you drink coffee close to your bedtime, you are more likely to feel anxious and not be able to fall asleep.

Fear of the dark

Many adults are embarrassed to admit that they are afraid of the dark because they associate it with childhood and immaturity, yet it is more common than it seems. A survey (4) conducted by an electrical company showed that almost 50% of adults surveyed were afraid of the dark to a lesser or greater extent. People with fear of the dark may exhibit symptoms similar to panic attacks, such as shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, trembling or shaking, as well as an intense urge to escape.

How can you reduce anxiety and sleep better?

Reducing anxiety and insomnia is no easy task, but it is possible. You need to work on both the thoughts that trigger your anxiety and the things that cause you to have trouble sleeping.


Light stretching exercises before bedtime are useful to help you fall asleep. By doing so, it helps your sleep period to regularize, thus avoiding the annoying abrupt and anxious awakening.

Decrease caffeine

When you drink coffee or caffeinated beverages all the time, you tend to be hyperstimulated. This chemical stimulates the brain and keeps it in a constant state of wakefulness waiting for a jolt, so reducing the levels you consume on a daily basis will help.

Breathing and relaxation

Doing breathing exercises before going to sleep is quite useful to reduce nighttime anxiety and help you fall asleep. Close your eyes and avoid visual and auditory distractions. Inhale for four seconds and exhale for another four seconds. Rest one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.

Feel the tension in your body caused by anxiety and insomnia slowly diminish. Along with the slow breathing, repeat in your mind phrases that will help you relieve the weights that are troubling you and help you fall asleep. “This is my time to rest, whatever is troubling me, I will attend to it tomorrow,” is a very useful mantra that you can repeat to yourself until you feel calmer.

In my experience…

Getting a good night’s sleep is key to maintaining mental health. It’s a never-ending cycle, anxiety keeps you awake and insomnia generates more anxiety. Therefore, you need to manage both problems at the same time: both the difficulty sleeping and the anxiety itself. Although it may seem overwhelming, it is possible with the help you need.

I invite you to seek professional help when you feel that even applying these suggestions, your situation does not improve. Cognitive behavioral therapy is very effective in treating different forms of anxiety and will give you more accurate tools to manage your emotions. 

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