Affecting more than 18 percent of all adults, anxiety disorders are one of the most common classes of mental disorders worldwide. Unfortunately, they are incredibly expensive as well as common, costing an estimated total of $42 billion in the United States alone. Although we are learning more and more about how to manage these illnesses, we still have much to discover when it comes to preventing them. According to new research on the circadian rhythm and anxiety, keeping a well-regulated circadian rhythm may be one important way to prevent anxiety, and to treat it once it has begun.
Living With Anxiety
Everyone struggles with fear or worry at times. For people with anxiety disorders, these feelings are more than occasional negative emotions, but rather a way of life. People with anxiety disorders live with feelings of overwhelming fear as well as physical symptoms such as chest pain, a racing heart, nausea, tremors, sweating and shortness of breath. These symptoms can interfere with one’s ability to work, to sleep and to live a happy life.
Like many disorders, anxiety appears to have a distinctive circadian rhythm. While depression is worse in the morning hours, anxiety appears to rear its ugly head more often in the late afternoon and evening. As a result, many people find themselves struggling with symptoms even as they are trying to get to sleep. This has led many researchers to believe that anxiety disrupts the circadian rhythm. However, according to new research, just the opposite appears to be true: A disrupted circadian rhythm may actually cause anxiety, particularly in the evening hours.
Links Between Circadian Rhythm and Anxiety
Doctors and scientists once believed that anxiety disrupted the circadian rhythm. Anxiety can make people hyper-vigilant and cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, all of which do not support a good night of rest. As a result, it was assumed that the anxiety itself disturbed the circadian rhythm.
To determine whether anxiety causes circadian dysfunction or just the opposite, researchers looked at a group of mice who had a mutation in the Clock gene, an important gene that, as its name suggests, controls circadian rhythm. These mice, as well as non-mutant counterparts, were then placed in a space that would cause them anxiety. The mice who had a mutated Clock gene exhibited symptoms typical of mania.
This connection is not limited to mice. Studies performed on humans have found a connection between circadian rhythm disruptions and anxiety and other mood disorders. People who have mutations in several different clock genes, such as BCL2 and DRD2, are more likely to develop anxiety disorders when they suffer insomnia or other circadian dysfunction.
Although these studies show a clear link between circadian dysfunction and anxiety, they failed to show which causes the other. However, a study performed this winter appears to have settled the age-old question of the chicken and the egg…on this topic, at least.
The Impact of Circadian Dysregulation on Anxiety and More
Researchers this winter presented new research at Neuroscience 2018, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, that shows that disruptions of our internal clocks can exacerbate not just anxiety, but a variety of brain disorders. According to the new study, deep slow-wave sleep actually calms areas of our brain that are overactive in anxiety. In fact, after experiencing insomnia, an increase in anxiety is seen in people who previously did not have any symptoms.
This research has huge implications for the treatment of anxiety and related disorders. Although the current gold standard treatment is SSRIs (commonly used as antidepressants) and therapy, therapies that target the circadian rhythm may also be beneficial.
If you have been blaming your insomnia on your mood, you may be approaching the issue from the wrong perspective. Although stress certainly affects the circadian rhythm, the circadian rhythm appears to have its own independent effect on anxiety. A disrupted or aberrant circadian rhythm can actually drive anxiety, or make existing anxiety even worse.
Calming Your Mind Through Sleep
How can an anxious person get the sleep that they need to feel calmer? First, practice good sleep hygiene. This means going to bed and arising at the same time every day, protecting your sleep time from the obligations that keep many of us far from our beds at night. Second, turn off all lights in your bedroom when it is bedtime. This includes nightlights and lamps, but also smartphones, tablets and televisions. If there is a great deal of ambient light in your area at night, consider blackout curtains.
In addition, consider taking a melatonin supplement. Melatonin is a natural hormone that helps us to fall asleep and stay asleep. A supplement can be very helpful to people who have an irregular sleep schedule that they are trying to correct.
Getting the sleep you need is essential to your mood and your lifelong health. Making a few simple lifestyle changes can help you in your battle against both insomnia and anxiety. If you want a calmer brain, consider giving it the high-quality rest that it needs.