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This Super-Common Habit Can Up Your Risk for Anxiety

Those dark circles under your eyes? They could be the shockingly simple reason for the antsiness you just can't shake.

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The dangers of not sleeping

You know how it goes: A night of bad sleep—whether you were socializing at the bar till the wee hours or you suffer from insomnia—means a foggy brain and bodily exhaustion the next day. If you need help sleeping sounder, check out these 13 secrets from sleep doctors. However, that fatigue is often accompanied by a strange sensation of jitters, too, making the discomfort twofold. You’re anxious, and you really need a nap.

“When we are looking at sleep and its impact on our psyche, we have to start at the root, which leaves us a chicken and egg situation,” holistic and certified adult sleep strategist Christine Hansen says. “On the one hand, psychological stress can have physical consequences, such as hormonal dysregulation or gut damage, both of which lead to sleep disturbances. On the other hand, those physical issues make it harder for our psyche to deal with stress.” Your tolerance for stress then dips, Hansen added, forcing a vicious cycle.

According to Richard Shane, PhD, a sleep psychotherapist, poor slumber is attributed to a vast number of medical conditions.

“Studies show that lack of sleep can increase stress, anxiety, depression, anger and irritability, impair your ability to think clearly, decrease energy and productivity, and contribute to a wide range of physical health problems,” Dr. Shane says.

Dr. Shane reports that in one study of 10,000 adults, people with insomnia were five times more likely to develop depression and were 20 times more likely to develop panic disorder.

 

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Your brain minus sleep

When you’re sleeping, your brain is actually shrinking, Hansen says. “The cerebral fluid in it is basically cleaning up any toxins that have built up during the day,” she adds. This process is key to easing stress on the mind—it fits in nicely with these 10 natural ways to ease anxiety. “Those toxins can accelerate genetically predisposed mental illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.”

Hansen says missing out on this process could impact your mental health. “Let’s say you are someone who is on the verge of falling into depression; sleep deprivation can be the final trigger to make you tip over the edge or accelerate the process to go there.”

Dr. Shane agrees: Without sleep, “the next day your body feels stressed and has a residual buildup of toxins, which contributes to anxiety and depression,” he says. “Because your brain did not delete much of the unnecessary, overwhelming sensory input from the previous day, your brain feels noisy and cluttered, which contributes to anxiety.”

Additionally, your nerves are more activated, leaving you feeling agitated. You don’t think as clearly as you would had you slept better, and you may make poor decisions throughout the day. All of this contributes to a general sense of anxiousness and can worsen pre-existing conditions, such as OCD.

“The area of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) in charge of thinking, reasoning and logic is less active and the area of the brain (the amygdala) in charge of emotions such as fear, anxiety and anger is more active,” Dr. Shane says.

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Your body minus sleep

While your brain certainly suffers from lack of sleep, your body is also miserable. If you’re looking for new ways to snooze better, check out these 11 weird sleep tricks. When your body is missing out on slumber, everything from your ability to manage stress to your sex life suffers.

“When you don’t sleep enough, your body starts to become stressed and studies have shown that the stress hormone cortisol therefore rises,” Hansen says. “Cortisol is a stimulant for us and, paradoxically, can keep us from sleeping. On top of that, once your body needs to produce more cortisol, it tends to become dysregulated in other hormones as well. Notably your sex hormones (oestrogens, testosterone, progesterone) have a direct impact on your mental health and ability to cope with stress.”

When you don’t sleep, your body begins to fold proteins incorrectly, Dr. Shane warns, which triggers an unhealthy pattern.

“Stress and anxiety then cause a further increase in cortisol and adrenaline, which gives you a wired feeling—often tired and wired—which both makes it difficult to fall asleep and also wakes you up in the middle of the night,” Dr. Shane says, adding that the increases in these hormones are hard on your heart. Protect your ticker with these 45 heart health tips from heart doctors.

 

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What good sleep can do for you

Not surprisingly, both your brain and body benefit. “Your brain flushes out toxins that had built up the previous days, and your brain regenerates neurons that affect your thoughts and emotions,” Dr. Shane says.

Your body thanks you when you hit the hay early, too, by keeping your hormones in check. “Your body regulates your hormones and secretes human growth hormone, which stimulates growth and repair in all tissues,” Dr. Shane says. “Your body repairs muscles and tissues, relaxes muscle tension and flushes out body toxins that had built up during the previous days.”

Hansen points out that REM sleep, specifically, is mandatory for proper health. “We need our REM sleep in order to process everything that has happened to us during our day,” she says.

Conclusively, devising a set bedtime—and actually sticking to it!—is necessary for your physical and mental well-being. (Plus, kick the bad habits that are hurting your sleep.)