Anxiety and Sleep: Why Do Racing Thoughts Keep Me Up at Night?

By Lisa Smalls

Living with persistent anxiety disrupts how productive you are with your daily activities, your relationships, and even how well you sleep at night. In turn, consequences of sleep deprivation exacerbate symptoms associated with anxiety, such as increased heart rate, irritability, and racing thoughts. These worsening symptoms then make it even harder to sleep, and the vicious cycle continues.

This complex connection between lack of sleep and anxiety is not only frustrating for the person experiencing both, but it is perplexing to scientists and mental health professionals, as well.

Why Me?

If you suffer from consistently high levels of anxiety daily, you may feel quite alone in your struggle. The truth is, you are not alone. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million American adults aged 18 and over, making up 18.1% of the population. And these are only the people who have been medically diagnosed. Still others don’t have the means to seek medical help.

How Does Anxiety Keep Me Up at Night?

There are many factors that could be contributing to why anxiety is keeping you up at night. If you had anxiety before you began to have trouble sleeping, rather than insomnia before you had anxiety, your high levels of stress could be due to past trauma or an unhealthy personal or work relationship, among numerous other causes. You may never know exactly where your anxiety originated, but the science behind how it affects your sleep is essentially the same, regardless of cause.

Stress and anxiety are closely connected to adrenal function. In the face of real danger, in other words, your body has a surge of adrenaline to kick in your fight-or-flight response. When you are overwhelmed with stress and anxiety without the presence of impending danger, your body is constantly being bombarded with a sense of panic due to overproduction of one stress hormone specifically - cortisol.

This imbalance of cortisol secretion affects your natural circadian rhythm, negatively affecting your ability to fall asleep when your body should be winding down at night. Cortisol’s normal pattern of rising and falling throughout a 24-day, gradually declining near bedtime, and being lowest between midnight to 4am is highly disrupted in anxiety disorders.

The good news is that there are ways to work with your body to get your circadian rhythm back on track.

How Can I Work with My Circadian Rhythm to Get Better Sleep?

Each of these practices need to be followed daily in order for your body to rewire and adjust to your new healthy sleep practices.

Wind-Down Routine

Set aside around 30 minutes before bed to engage in a calming ritual, such as soaking in a warm bath or other relaxation techniques.


If you’re new to meditation, begin with just five minutes of silence in a designated quiet place in your home and build up to around 30 minutes a day, if possible. In the morning before work or at night before bed are both optimal times to practice meditation.


Exercise releases endorphins that elevate your mood, and when practiced regularly, will provide your body with these feel-good chemicals consistently, helping you wind down at night.

Anxiety can be difficult to deal with, but it doesn’t have to rule your life. Reclaim your sleep by following some of the tips above.