Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep, is not just a concern for physical health—it can also significantly impact mental well-being. 

Many wonder whether sleep apnea can cause anxiety. The answer is yes; the disruptions in sleep and the resulting lack of quality rest can indeed contribute to heightened anxiety levels.

What’s the link between sleep apnea and anxiety?

Disrupted sleep

When you have sleep apnea, your sleep is interrupted many times throughout the night. This means you don’t get the deep sleep your brain needs to process emotions properly. Missing out on good sleep can leave you feeling irritable and anxious.

Stress response

Every time your breathing pauses, your body reacts like an emergency, releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These are helpful in real emergencies, but when they’re released night after night, they can make you feel constantly on edge.

Lack of oxygen

Sleep apnea often lowers the oxygen levels in your blood because it stops you from breathing properly. Low oxygen can make it harder for your brain to manage your emotions, which might increase feelings of anxiety.

Daytime tiredness

The poor sleep quality and lower oxygen levels can also tire you during the day. When you’re exhausted, everything feels more overwhelming, and this can heighten your anxiety.

Worrying about lack of sleep

Just worrying about getting enough sleep or the health impacts of sleep apnea can also add to your anxiety. It’s a cycle that can be hard to break without treatment.

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is not just a disturbance in your nightly rest—it’s a serious disorder where breathing repeatedly stops and starts as you sleep. Several key factors and conditions can cause or contribute to the development of sleep apnea:

Physical Obstructions

Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common type of sleep apnea caused by a blockage of the airway during sleep. This blockage typically happens when the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses and closes during sleep. Factors that increase the risk of OSA include:

  • Excess weight: Fat deposits around the upper airway can obstruct breathing.
  • Anatomical differences: Some people have a narrower throat, enlarged tonsils, or other physical traits that reduce airway space.
  • Age: Sleep apnea occurs more often in older adults, partly because of the loss of muscle tone around the airway.
  • Use of alcohol and sedatives: These substances relax the muscles in the throat, which can worsen airway obstruction.

Central sleep apnea

Central sleep apnea (CSA), less common than OSA, occurs when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. This type of sleep apnea can be associated with the following conditions:

  • Heart disorders: Conditions like congestive heart failure can be linked to CSA.
  • Stroke or brain tumor: These conditions can affect brainstem function, which regulates breathing.

Combined factors

Complex sleep apnea syndrome

Complex sleep apnea syndrome, also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, occurs when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. 

Lifestyle and environmental factors

Certain lifestyle choices and environmental factors can also contribute to the onset or worsening of sleep apnea:

  • Smoking: Smoking can increase inflammation and fluid retention in the airway, worsening obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Nasal congestion: If you have difficulty breathing through your nose due to an anatomical problem or allergies, you’re more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Family history: Genetics can play a role, as having family members with sleep apnea might increase your risk.

Treating sleep apnea and anxiety

Treating sleep apnea and anxiety together involves addressing both the physical interruptions of sleep and the mental health challenges. Here’s how to tackle both:

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)

A CPAP machine is often the first line of treatment for those with obstructive sleep apnea. This device keeps the airway open by providing a steady stream of air through a mask worn during sleep.

By preventing airway closure, CPAP can drastically reduce sleep interruptions, leading to better overall sleep quality and decreased daytime fatigue, which can help alleviate anxiety.

Behavioral changes

Lifestyle modifications play a crucial role in managing both sleep apnea and anxiety. This includes:

  • Weight management: Losing weight can reduce the severity of sleep apnea for overweight individuals.
  • Regular exercise: Physical activity can help alleviate anxiety and panic attacks, thereby improving sleep quality.
  • Avoiding alcohol and smoking: Both substances can exacerbate sleep apnea and anxiety symptoms.
  • Sleep hygiene: Establishing a consistent sleep schedule and creating a restful sleeping environment can enhance sleep quality and reduce anxiety.

Medication

While medications are typically not used to treat sleep apnea directly, they can be effective for managing anxiety symptoms. It’s important to consult with a mental health professional about the safe use of anxiety medications, especially since some sedatives can worsen sleep apnea.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a powerful tool for treating anxiety and can also be effective for those struggling with sleep disorders.

This type of therapy helps you identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to both conditions. CBT can be tailored for sleep apnea to improve sleep hygiene and motivate adherence to other treatments like CPAP.

Oxygen Therapy

In cases of central sleep apnea or complex sleep apnea syndrome, supplemental oxygen at night can help maintain adequate oxygen levels in the blood. This treatment helps stabilize breathing patterns during sleep, improving sleep quality and reducing anxiety symptoms.

Consultation with specialists

Working with a team of specialists, including sleep specialists, psychologists, and possibly a psychiatrist, ensures that all aspects of sleep apnea and anxiety are appropriately addressed. This collaborative approach can lead to more personalized and effective treatment plans.

Long-term effects of untreated anxiety

If anxiety remains untreated, it can lead to serious long-term consequences that affect various aspects of life and overall well-being. 

Mental health deterioration

Chronic anxiety can lead to the development or worsening of other mental health disorders, including depression and more severe anxiety disorders like panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.

The constant state of stress and tension can wear down an individual’s mental resilience, increasing the risk of mood swings, emotional exhaustion, and even suicidal thoughts.

Impact on physical health

Long-standing anxiety doesn’t just affect the mind; it also has profound impacts on physical health. Chronic stress from ongoing anxiety can contribute to cardiovascular problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and irregular heart rhythms. Anxiety can also worsen other conditions like asthma, gastrointestinal disorders, and chronic respiratory disorders.

Decreased quality of life

Living with untreated anxiety can severely affect one’s quality of life. It can interfere with daily activities, relationships, and performance at work or school. People with chronic anxiety may avoid situations that could trigger their anxiety, leading to social isolation, decreased job opportunities, and strained personal relationships.

Sleep disturbances

Anxiety is closely linked to sleep issues. Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep are common among those with anxiety disorders.

Over time, lack of sleep can lead to a host of other health issues, including impaired immune function, weight gain, and decreased cognitive function.

Cognitive impairments

Persistent anxiety can affect cognitive functions such as memory, concentration, and decision-making. People may find it difficult to focus at work or school, manage daily tasks, or make important decisions, which can add to the cycle of anxiety and stress.

Final thoughts

Sleep apnea and anxiety often occur together, impacting both mental and physical health. Addressing these conditions can improve your sleep, lower your anxiety, and boost your overall quality of life. If you’re dealing with symptoms of sleep apnea or anxiety, it’s important to seek help promptly.

Don’t hesitate to contact us today for support. We’re here to help you manage your anxiety and improve your sleep, guiding you toward a healthier and more fulfilling life.

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