Anxiety, Insomnia, and College Students: What to Know and How to Get Help
No mental illness affects more Americans than anxiety. About 40 million American adults—more than 18% of the population—suffer from an anxiety disorder in a given year. Roughly the same number suffer from long-term, chronic sleep disorders, such as insomnia. Insomnia disrupts sleep in many ways. Sufferers have trouble with one or more of the following: falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, waking up too early, and sleeping but still waking up feeling tired.
That striking similarity in occurrence is not coincidental—there is a direct connection between anxiety and insomnia, as anxiety is known to exacerbate insomnia, and insomnia can cause anxiety.
This page examines the relationship between these two disorders and how they disproportionately affect college students. It also offers tips and resources for combating insomnia and anxiety to help anyone suffering.
What Is the Relationship Between Anxiety and Insomnia?
Research shows a direct link between clinical anxiety and insomnia. People with anxiety disorders are much more likely to also suffer from sleep disorders than the broader population. Research also suggests that insomnia might be more frequent, more severe, or both for people who suffer from both anxiety and a comorbid mood disorder, like depression.
It’s important to note that anxiety only becomes a disorder (or “clinical”) when it doesn’t go away, even when stressors are removed, and affects your daily life. Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (persistent worry over nothing in particular), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and social phobia. Even if the anxiety you’re dealing with has a cause and may be short term, you can still get help to learn healthy ways to cope.
Insomnia may also be a temporary condition. It’s only clinical if it becomes persistent/long-term.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the disorders affect one another. Anxiety disrupts sleep, and poor sleep can cause anxiety, and vice versa. That relationship, however, is by no means exclusive. The ADAA states: “Research also shows that some form of sleep disruption is present in nearly all psychiatric disorders.” Additionally, both insomnia and anxiety can be hereditary, but traumatic life events can also cause their symptoms. That said, not all sleep disorders have a comorbid mental health problem; the ADAA also states that stress alone can play a factor. You can also have a sleep disorder with no extenuating circumstances.
Several overlapping symptoms are characteristic of , including exhaustion, trouble thinking, lack of organization, and poor task management. Both make you more likely to feel depressed or engage in substance abuse, and can cause irritability, ongoing worry, and lethargy or weakness. People who have insomnia or an anxiety disorder are also at a higher risk for suicidal ideation or attempts.
How Do Insomnia and Anxiety Affect Students?
Students seek professional help for anxiety and depression more than any other mental health challenges. According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS), nearly three college students in four have experienced “overwhelming anxiety” at one point. Sleep disorders, too, afflict college students.
Among the most common and severe effects of insomnia and anxiety disorders on students are:
Why Are University Students Prone to Anxiety and Insomnia?
Considering the life of the average student, it’s not surprising that anxiety and insomnia are common on campus. Here are a few of the primary triggers for both in college students:
There’s research to link college life to anxiety and insomnia. According to a study posted on the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Sleep disorders (SDs) are now recognized as a public health concern with considerable psychiatric and societal consequences specifically on the academic life of students.” The research, which focused on students at a university in Lebanon, revealed more than 37% suffered from poor sleep and almost 11% of students suffered from “clinically significant insomnia.”
The study’s authors closed with this synopsis: “…the link between SD and anxiety reminds us of the importance of treating anxiety as soon as detected and not simply targeting the reduction of sleep problems.”
Tips and Advice for Combating Anxiety and Insomnia
Now that you know the causes, symptoms, prevalence, and effects of anxiety and insomnia, it’s time to learn what to do about them. Whether you’re suffering from one disorder or both, there are steps you can take to reduce and mitigate the toll these disorders take on your health and daily life. These steps can also help you if you’re experiencing temporary anxiety and insomnia.
Tips for Combating Anxiety
According to the ADAA, one of the first and most important steps is to separate facts from the many myths and misconceptions about anxiety. Examples of myths include using tactics like breathing into paper bags to avoid hyperventilating, snapping rubber bands on your wrist to stop panic attacks, and the need to avoid stressful situations.
The ADAA developed an infographic that separates the truths from myths, which is an excellent place to start getting your facts straight so you can make informed decisions on how best to cope with anxiety. For instance, you shouldn’t suppress your thoughts; paper bags can “serve as safety crutches that keep you anxious about being anxious;” and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be more effective than medication to deal with anxiety.
A therapist or psychiatrist can identify and diagnose the type of anxiety disorder you have, if any. You can then work with a professional therapist to develop skills and strategies for coping with and managing the effects of that disorder. The ADAA also points out that medications, primarily when used in conjunction with therapy, can be effective in both the short and long term.
Tips for Combating Insomnia
If the previous suggestions aren’t helping you sleep, the Mayo Clinic suggests getting a physical, which could reveal any health conditions associated with insomnia. A simple blood test could reveal, for example, that a thyroid problem might be driving your inability to sleep well.
If a physical exam doesn’t reveal a cause, you might also consider spending a night at a sleep center. Specialists at these facilities test for and measure things like eye movement, heartbeat, breathing, brain waves, and other body activities to develop a better understanding of what’s interrupting your sleep.
You might also look into cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI), which deals with things like stimulus control (essential instructions include waking up at the same time every day, getting in bed only when sleepy, getting out of bed if you can’t fall asleep and only returning when you feel tired again, and avoid excessive sleeping in the night) and remaining passively awake (not trying to fall asleep and instead just trying to relax, which can lead to you falling asleep).
The Mayo Clinic also points out that while both prescription and over-the-counter medications can be helpful in the short-term, they can come with side effects and can create dependence—though some medications have been approved for long-term use. Short-acting controlled substance medications, like Ambien or Lunesta, should be used in the short-term. They are classified as controlled substances and may cause addiction. Longer-acting medications like Trazadone and Seroquel are approved for extended use, as they are not considered addictive.
Tips for Improving Mental Health
There is a lot of overlap between anxiety and insomnia in terms of strategies and tips for alleviating your suffering.
How to Get Help With Anxiety and Insomnia
If you suffer from anxiety or insomnia, help is available at your school, in your community, and even on the phone or online.
Online and On-Campus Students
Virtually every college and university offers mental health services to their students or, at the very least, can help you with accessing outside resources. This applies to both traditional students on campus and distance learners. If you’re a student who is experiencing anxiety, having trouble sleeping, or both, take advantage of those resources, which are likely on your school’s website.
The following non-profit organizations produce materials for people who want to learn more about anxiety disorders, seek treatment, get the facts, and network with mental health professionals and other sufferers:
These non-profit groups are sources for information, contacts, treatment options, and other resources for dealing with insomnia and related sleep disorders:
Many of the non-profit organizations dedicated to anxiety and insomnia provide links and contact information for resources in local communities, which you can use to find help close to where you live, work, or go to school.
Telehealth and Online Counseling Services
The following resources can connect you with mental health and medical professionals for remote therapy and counseling services. Especially convenient and practical for anxiety and insomnia, these services, sites, and apps let you get the help you need without having to leave your home.