Sleep Apnea and Anxiety: Is There a Two-Way Connection?

Sleep Apnea and Anxiety
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    sleep apnea and anxietySleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes breathing to repeatedly stop and start during sleep. Millions of Americans suffer from sleep apnea—22 million to be exact—but a more troublesome fact is that 80 percent of moderate and severe cases go undiagnosed. Some of the symptoms of sleep apnea include insomnia, fatigue, and headaches and they can affect your day-to-day life in more serious ways than you think.

    Anxiety, on the other hand, is your body’s response to stress. Feeling anxious while in stressful situations is a normal response. When someone says something like, my anxiety is bad today, they probably mean that life may be overwhelming them at the moment. 

    However, anxiety disorders’ cause is not only related to the ebb and flow of life. Anxiety is often loosely linked to sleep apnea because the two share some common side effects such as insomnia. Like sleep apnea, anxiety also comes in different forms. Unlike sleep apnea—where you only have three types of sleep apnea—there are several different types of anxieties.

    The hypothetical person above who says their anxiety is bad may just be experiencing a tough day, but they could also suffer from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) where they have insomnia as they stay up at night worrying about situations beyond their control and unlikely worst-case scenarios.

    Is the connection between sleep apnea and anxiety just because they share a few symptoms in common? It’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s more of an infinite loop rather than a cause-and-effect.

    The Infinite Loop Between Sleep Apnea and Anxiety

    Do you have anxiety because of sleep apnea and sleeplessness, or are you experiencing sleep apnea and lack of sleep because of your anxiety? This is a chicken-or-the-egg type of question. 

    During a sleep apnea episode, the brain receives a sort of a panic signal, which jolts the body awake to resume breathing. The sudden wake up prevents you from receiving uninterrupted sleep and reaching all of the sleep stages, getting your body into what is known as sleep debt. Sleep debt makes it more difficult for your brain to cope with stress.

    Also, when sleep is disrupted consistently, it can alter brain activity as well as the neurochemicals which affect your thinking pattern and mood. The hindered sleep prevents the healing or recovery of your body from day-to-day stresses. In other words, if your brain were a computer processor, being in sleep debt would be like having a bunch of apps running in your head, and none work as well or as fast as they should because there are too many open.

    Over time, that stress will increase your heart and blood pressure rates and will lead to additional physiological health issues. The more stress you feel because of sleeplessness, the more likely you are to have a panic attack.

    The Relationship Between Sleep Apnea and Stress, Panic Attacks, and Chest Pains

    Recent data confirms that there is an association between Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) and anxiety. In its more serious forms, those with anxiety disorders will have elevated blood pressure, chest pains, and even panic attacks.

    This is where the connection to sleep apnea comes in. Those key symptoms of sleep apnea—insomnia, fatigue, sleeplessness, and irritability—may also trigger elevated blood pressure, chest pains, and panic attacks.

    Will CPAP Therapy Help With Anxiety? 

    CPAP therapy has been proven by research to work in treating sleep apnea time and time again and as recently as 2020, it was also studied to help those with anxiety and depression symptoms. Since we know that the two feed off of each other, helping solve one may have a domino effect on the other. 

    Treating your sleep apnea means that your sleep won’t be interrupted by those various apnea events that were jolting you awake at night, and you’ll be able to reach all the stages of sleep you need to wake up feeling rested.

    In addition to sleep apnea treatment, try to destress by stretching before bed, avoiding blue light, or reading a book to unwind and set yourself up for a good night’s sleep.

    Final Thoughts

    People suffering from both or either sleep apnea and anxiety should seek suitable treatments for both these conditions by talking to their doctor. The good news is that some treatment options offer hand-in-hand benefits—where one solution also has a direct impact on the other disorder.

    If you think you are experiencing either anxiety or sleep apnea, consult a doctor or a sleep specialist today. Early treatments for both of these disorders are vital to maintaining good mental and physical health.