Living With OSA

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

Reviewed by Dr. Michael G. Long

Sleep apnea is a type of sleep disorder which has serious implications. It causes breathing to repeatedly stop and start during sleep. Millions of Americans suffer from sleep apnea, but a more bothering fact is that a majority of them go undiagnosed. Insomnia, fatigue and headaches are some of the symptoms of sleep apnea and they can affect your day-to-day life in more serious ways than you think. Recent research also shows that sleep apnea can cause depression.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is your body’s response to stress. It is defined as an emotion characterized by feelings of worried thoughts, tension and physical alterations such as increased blood pressure, by the American Psychological Association. Anxiety may also cause insomnia in many people.

So is there a two-way connection between both these disorders? Let’s find out.

How Sleep Apnea Causes Anxiety?

During an apnea episode, the brain receives a kind of a ‘panic’ signal, which jerks the body awake to resume breathing. This prevents the person from having unhindered and peaceful sleep.

These apnea episodes hence lead to what is known as ‘sleep debt’ which makes it more difficult for the brain to cope with stress. Also, when sleep is disrupted, again and again, it can alter brain activity as well as the neurochemicals which affect a person’s thinking pattern and mood. The hindered sleep also prevents the healing or recovering of your body.

The heart and blood pressure may also be affected which in turn may lead to additional physiological health issues.

The body in such situations shows symptoms such as restlessness, sweating, fatigue, lack of concentration, having unwanted thoughts, panic, hyperventilation, rapid breathing, feeling of suffocation, chest pain etc. These indicate anxiety. Apnea not only causes anxiety, but it can also aggravate anxiety in those who already have a history of the anxiety disorder.

Can Anxiety Aggravate Sleep Apnea?

Though it’s clear that apnea is a very common cause of anxiety and panic attacks, it is difficult to establish that anxiety can lead to sleep apnea. However, anxiety can prevent you from having a good night’s sleep which can eventually aggravate sleep apnea. It can thus negatively affect your treatment for sleep apnea.

A sleep without apnea episodes seems to be the only solution for breaking this cycle or link between both these disorders. Rather than considering these two as similar health conditions, they both should be treated separately.

What are the Treatment Options?

People suffering from both or either of sleep apnea and anxiety should seek suitable treatments for both these conditions without any delay after being diagnosed. The good news is that some treatment options offer hand-in-hand benefits, where one solution has a direct impact on the other disorder also.

Also, these treatments do not follow the ‘one-size-fits-all’ concept. A dentist, doctor or a specialist can help you understand the nature of your disorder better and design a treatment plan best suited for your needs. The treatment options include:

  • A comprehensive sleep study where your sleep state, heart rate, eye movement, airflow, muscle activity, blood oxygen levels and other functions are monitored overnight by a sleep specialist.
  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure breathing devices or CPAP devices are used to treat sleep apnea. A CPAP mask is placed over the nose or mouth and the air is gently pushed into the upper airway to help it remain open. If patients with anxiety find it difficult to wear a CPAP mask, they can also be prescribed other options such as dental appliances.
  • Dental appliances control the position of the tongue and the lower jaw in order to reduce obstructions in the airway and boost the flow of air to the lungs. An experienced dentist can help you better understand the role of dental appliances in sleep apnea therapy.
  • Other treatment options for sleep apnea include nasal expiratory positive airway pressure, upper airway surgery or hypoglossal nerve stimulation.

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

About Dr. Michael G. Long

Dr. Michael G. Long is a family dentist in Fresno, CA committed to providing comfortable and comprehensive family dental care. To best serve his patients, he spends several hours in continuing education and training in various aspects of dentistry. Dr. Long takes great pride in delivering quality patient care that is second to none and this is the USP of his dental practice.

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