Sleep, Sun, and Anxiety: What You Should Know

Anxiety is inevitable: the little jitters before giving a speech, the beads of sweat that break out when about to meet a blind date, the little knot in the stomach before a big test. These are things everyone will experience from time to time. However, for some people, anxiety can dominate their life. When this occurs, some simple things -- such as getting a bit of sun and enough sleep -- can help.

Sleep is restorative; it’s a biological need that cannot, for general health, be overlooked. An anxiety disorder can make sleeping more difficult and be caused, in part, by a lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation -- routinely getting less than six hours of sleep a night -- has been found by researchers to contribute to anxiety disorder. Not getting enough sleep can cause havoc with hormones and neurotransmitters.

How Anxiety Affects Sleep

Insomnia: Insomnia is a general term that includes problems falling asleep, problems staying asleep, and waking so early that the person is not refreshed by sleep. Most people suffering from an anxiety disorder have insomnia as one of their symptoms.

Nightmares: Another sleep problem those with anxiety often have, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients, is nightmares. Recurring nightmares can contribute to feeling unrested and anxious.

Other sleep disorders: Researchers are hot on the trail of sleep problems associated with anxiety disorders. Some researchers believe that sleep paralysis (waking up and yet being unable to move) is anxiety related. Another set of researchers are looking at cataplexy (a sudden loss of muscle tone) as a lesser version of narcolepsy (suddenly falling asleep) in relation to anxiety.

Hypersomnia: Anxiety can also be a symptom of over-sleeping called hypersomnia. A full night’s sleep is essential, but there really can be too much of a good thing. Sleeping long hours at night or taking naps during the day after a full night’s sleep can be a symptom or a cause of anxiety. First, check medications, as some can cause sleepiness. If the drug is suspected, check with the prescribing doctor; the dose may need to be altered. Excessive sleepiness could also be caused by drug interactions. It is also possible that sleepiness during the day may be due to insufficient sleep at night. While the quantity may be there, the quality may not. Check with a doctor to rule out sleep apnea.

Catching Some Rays

Sunlight is another basic human need. The vitamin D produced in our skin as a reaction to sunlight can go a long way in making someone feel better by producing a calming effect. Exposure to sunlight also helps regulate the nocturnal/diurnal cycles of the body, helping a person get a good night's sleep.

Furthermore, if a person has seasonal affective disorder (SAD) -- feeling depressed during the shorter, winter months -- along with an anxiety disorder, the exposure to sunlight can bring much relief.

Of course, anxiety is related to serotonin levels in the brain. When the levels are low, depression and anxiety can result. When the levels are too high, it can manifest in aggression. Most drugs to treat anxiety make more serotonin available. Sunlight may allow your body to produce more of the neurotransmitter.

One cautionary tip to consider: Several anti-anxiety drugs, such as Xanax and Librium, may degrade in the light even after consumption. They also may make a person more sensitive to light, such that their skin may burn more easily with prolonged sun exposure.

Tips to Consider

To avoid or minimize anxiety:

  • Get at least seven hours of sleep per night
  • Get no more than nine hours of sleep per night
  • Get several hours of direct sunlight a day
  • Be cautious of sunlight if on a course of anti-anxiety medications
  • Take vitamin D when sunlight exposure is limited
  • Have a medical checkup if sleep becomes an issue

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