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Sleep Anxiety: What Parents Need To Know

While many teenagers struggle with developing and maintaining good sleep habits, some are also dealing with another difficult issue: sleep anxiety. It can take several forms, but it all boils down to a basic premise.

“Sleep anxiety can be defined as a feeling of fear or stress about falling asleep or staying asleep,” said Jordan Cornwell, a therapist and certified rehabilitation counselor at Dragonfly Transitions, a young adult transitional living program.

This stress and worry then makes it even harder for your teenager to get the healthy rest they need.

If your teen has sleep anxiety, it’s important to understand the issue as well as the best ways to treat it.

Sleep Anxiety in Teens: How Common Is Teen Sleep Deprivation?

Most teenagers don’t get enough sleep, with less than eight hours a night, according to a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that teens ages 13-18 get eight to 10 hours of sleep per night.

According to a study on sleep quality and mental health in the PLOS Medicine medical journal, the link between mental health and sleep is bidirectional. In other words, teens with anxiety often struggle with getting enough sleep, and teens who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to develop sleep anxiety.

Consequences of Too Little Sleep

“Regularly not getting enough sleep causes sleep deprivation,” Cornwell said. “This is rest that you cannot ‘catch up on.’ It can have dramatic effects on a teen’s mental and physical health and academic performance. Concentration, poor grades, anxiety, depression, and even suicidality, among other things, can be linked to sleep deprivation.”

The 2020 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study had similar findings, noting that three areas of daytime functioning are affected by regularly not getting enough sleep: mental and physical health, cognitive and academic performance, and risk-taking behaviors.

Unfortunately, many parents don’t always know what to look for to identify whether their teen struggles with sleep anxiety.

Causes and Symptoms of Sleep Anxiety

Before looking at symptoms your teen may be experiencing, it’s helpful to understand the causes behind the issue.

Sleep anxiety causes

Anxiety and chronic stress trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol. When cortisol levels are too high, it can be difficult to sleep. And not getting enough sleep can increase levels of cortisol. This can be a difficult cycle for your teen to navigate.

Mental health issues can also contribute to difficulty sleeping.

“Sleep and psychiatric problems such as generalized anxiety can go hand in hand,” Cornwell said. “If you have an anxiety disorder or a sleep disorder, these can both be common causes of sleep anxiety.”

Sleep anxiety symptoms

If your child can’t fall asleep or stay asleep due to anxiety, they may exhibit symptoms such as:

  • Shakiness or fidgeting. 
  • Mood changes, including irritability or nervousness.
  • An increase in sweating, breathing rates, or heart rates. 
  • Physical tension, such as clenched fists, a tight jaw, or a headache.
  • Digestive changes, including lack of appetite, abdominal cramping, or nausea.

Some of the symptoms of sleep anxiety can get in the way of your teen’s daily life. If anxiety or poor sleep quality is affecting your teen’s mental well-being, school performance, relationships, or work life, reach out to a mental health expert or a doctor. These professionals can help make a diagnosis and craft a personalized treatment plan for your teenager.

3 Ways To Help Your Teen With Sleep Anxiety Right Now

Along with a doctor’s guidance, there are several ways parents can help teens with sleep anxiety reduce anxiety, relax, and establish healthier sleep patterns.

1. Identify the underlying cause of your teenager’s anxiety disorder, stress, and sleep problems.

From navigating a breakup to acing an upcoming SAT exam, there could be a lot on your teenager’s mind. In some cases, anxiety from their day keeps them up at night and contributes to trouble sleeping. 

Encourage open dialogue and honest, nonjudgmental conversations that invite your teenager to share what’s making them feel anxious or stressed. Nemours Children’s Health points out that talking about feelings is key for teens with anxiety, and your caring relationship with them helps them build inner resilience.

Once you listen to your teen and identify the emotional or relational issue they’re struggling with, help them identify proactive techniques that provide predictable structure so they can manage the uncertainty of any events or tasks they’re facing. That will help them not toss and turn all night thinking about their problems.

For instance, you may encourage them to:

  • Journal or write to-do lists for the next day or the coming week, which can help them clear their mind
  • Create afternoon or evening boundaries around the stressors they identify (e.g., in the hours before bedtime, teens should silence or turn off their smartphone if they know that social media and text messages trigger their anxiety).

2. Establish more routines and structure in your teen’s day to help them sleep better.

Most teens juggle a lot on their schedule, including work, school, and extracurricular activities. This can feel overwhelming, and you can play a powerful role in creating clear routines and schedules for the benefit of their mental health and to address their sleep problems. 

According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, teenagers with consistent family routines experience benefits including: 

  • Greater emotional self-regulation. 
  • Reduced levels of epinephrine, a biological marker of stress.

In establishing a routine, parents should consider:

  • Asking for the teen’s input: The best routine is one that everyone agrees on, so get buy-in from your child about what they feel is or is not important in their afternoon and evening schedules.
  • Starting small: Don’t whip out a giant calendar and agenda just yet. Build up on small routines, such as starting with a regular family dinnertime.
  • Focusing on the aspects of the day that have the least routine: For example, your teen’s sleep anxiety may benefit from a clearly scheduled homework time or household chore time. 

3. Encourage healthy sleep habits to address lack of sleep.

Teen relaxes to reduce sleep anxiety symptoms.

Just as you would provide constructive guidance to other areas of life that your teen struggles with, you can give your child tips and tricks that help encourage a good night’s sleep:

  • Motivate physical activity, which may significantly reduce anxiety over time, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. The Sleep Foundation notes that exercise improves sleep for many people. You may even want to make it a part of the previously discussed family routines, such as going for a walk together every night after you all have dinner.
  • Help your child cut out anxiety-triggering stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine. “If your teen is having issues with sleep anxiety, it may be best to completely remove caffeine from their diet, or at the very least suggest that they do not drink caffeinated beverages after 1 p.m.,” Cornwell said.
  • Encourage your teen to turn their bedroom into a space that feels truly cozy and comfortable to them with features such as dimmer lighting, extra pillows, or soothing decor and artwork.
  • Keep their bedroom just for relaxation and sleep by ensuring their homework desk is in a spare room or home office.

Professional Mental Health Help Can Support Teens With Sleep Anxiety

Sleep anxiety can be challenging, but your teen doesn’t have to navigate it on their own. As mentioned above, you can help them develop good sleep hygiene at home as well as seek medical advice and explore treatment options.

“Should teens experience sleep anxiety in a way that affects their daily life and/or academic performance,” Cornwell said, “they should see a primary care doctor and/or a mental health professional.”

If you need help finding a therapist, you can use the Psychology Today search tool.

“Ruling out any anxiety disorders or health problems contributing to sleep anxiety would be my first suggestion, then work to address sleep hygiene,” Cornwell concluded.

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today! 

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Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.