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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.

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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:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Strained or failed relationships
  • Poor academic performance and low grades
  • Lower productivity and missed classes
  • Withdrawal from social and intramural activities
  • Hampered reflexes, diminished perception, and slow reaction time, all of which can increase danger when driving or even when walking
  • Reduced hygiene and self-care

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:

  • Difficulty adjusting to life away from home and family for the first time
  • Difficulty adjusting to increased responsibility
  • Managing heavy loads of coursework
  • Managing new relationships and social activities
  • Managing complicated schedules
  • Worries about grades and performance
  • Stress about student loans and other financial concerns
  • Stress about choosing a major or deciding on a course of study
  • Worries about finding a job and beginning a career after school
  • Many college students simply don’t value or prioritize sleep and treat it as a luxury instead of as a necessity

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

Publications like Psychology Today and HealthLine, and organizations like the ADAA have compiled lists of suggestions that have proven to help many people control their anxiety. They include:

  • Learn and practice deep-breathing techniques.
  • De-clutter and organize your home to create a streamlined space that isn’t chaotic.
  • Confront your debt, create a budget, and develop a strategy to deal with any financial issues, as money is a primary driver of anxiety.
  • Plan day trips, especially ones that involve natural or otherwise serene settings.
  • Go to bed early and get a full night’s sleep.
  • Resist the urge to confuse negative thoughts with facts. For example, if you have the thought “I’m crazy and I’ll never feel better,” that’s a negative thought you’re having—it isn’t a fact. Do your best to watch and analyze your thoughts, paying careful attention
  • Start a journal and write down what you feel when you experience negative self-thoughts, self-doubt, or self-loathing.
  • When you feel anxiety coming on, take a brief walk to discharge built-up adrenaline, which could be agitating your emotions.
  • Unplug and manage your digital life—restrict social media, news apps, and other common online triggers to planned and limited sessions.
  • Talk to people you trust=and find support in online groups and forums for people facing similar issues.

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

Organizations like the Sleep Foundation, Penn Medicine, and the Cleveland Clinic offer tips for managing insomnia, including:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends.
  • Don’t nap, particularly in the afternoon.
  • Avoid heavy meals in the hours before bed.
  • Turn off the TV, computer, smartphone, and all screen-based devices at least one hour before bed.
  • Wind down before bed with a calming activity like meditation, reading, taking a bath, or listening to soft music.
  • Check the side effects of any medications you take and, if disturbed sleep is one of them, consult with your doctor.

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.

  • Learn and practice meditation; you can use apps like Calm and Headspace to guide you.
  • Avoid caffeine and sugary foods and drinks.
  • Avoid drinking and smoking
  • Try aromatherapy with lavender oil, which may contain anxiety-reducing properties.
  • Eat well and drink enough water.
  • Exercise regularly, but if you have insomnia, make sure it’s early in the day.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help you learn to question and challenge your negative thought patterns that lead to anxiety

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.

Non-Profit Resources

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:

  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Their mission is to “improv[e] the quality of life for people with anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and other disorders associated with these conditions through education, practice, and research.”
  • Social Anxiety Association: The SAA helps and encourages anyone who has been diagnosed with social anxiety.
  • National Anxiety Foundation: They provide resources and education on panic disorder, PTSD, OCD, and “other,” which would include information on generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Freedom From Fear: Their mission is “to positively impact the lives of all of those affected by anxiety, depression, and related disorders through advocacy, education, research, and community support.

These non-profit groups are sources for information, contacts, treatment options, and other resources for dealing with insomnia and related sleep disorders:

  • Sleep Foundation: This website contains resources on topics such as insomnia, how sleep is affected by diseases, children/teens and healthy sleep, sleep problems, the effects of traveling on sleep, and sleep deprivation.
  • Project Sleep: This non-profit “educates individuals about the importance of sleep health and sleep disorders.” They accomplish this through events, campaigns, and programs.
  • American Academy of Sleep Medicine: Their website offers clinical resources, professional development for sleep trainers, advocacy, and a learning portal with classes on healthy sleep.

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.

  • Amwell: This is a platform for online therapy and psychiatric appointments.
  • Doctor on Demand: This site offers online therapy for issues such as anxiety, workplace issues, panic attacks, and more.
  • BetterHelp: Online therapy for individuals, couples, and teens.
  • META Teletherapy: Counseling for Students: They offer counseling specific to students at a lower cost.
  • Talkspace: Talkspace offers counseling for issues such as anxiety, depression, stress, relationships, self-esteem, and more.

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