Research findings have documented patterns of decreased sleep efficiency, disrupted sleep continuity, and overall lightening of sleep in generalized anxiety disorders (GAD); however, the presence of comorbidity, especially with mood disorders, is believed to confound the results.
As a solution to this conundrum, the current study investigates sleep architecture in a group of otherwise healthy subjects who reported clinically significant GAD symptoms. The results corroborate previous findings about disruption in sleep continuity by revealing that the participants experienced micro-arousals across the initial portion of the sleep period. In normal sleepers, this stage usually involves deep sleep and infrequent arousals; however, micro-arousals include brief interruptions in sleep characterized by shifts from deeper to lighter stages of sleep, which can disrupt overall sleep continuity.
Furthermore, the researchers have made an intriguing connection between micro-arousals observed in individuals with GAD and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), two conditions that share certain similarities. One significant similarity highlighted by the researches is the association of micro-arousals with elevated baseline anxiety.
Both GAD and PTSD are characterized by chronic anxiety , where individuals experience excessive and uncontrollable worry or fear. The presence of micro-arousals in these disorders suggests a potential underlying mechanism contributing to elevated anxiety levels. These brief awakenings during sleep may disrupt the natural restorative processes that occur during the sleep cycle, contributing to increased anxiety levels upon waking and throughout the day.
In addition, the researchers also found that individuals with GAD exhibited decreased sleep satisfaction. This finding can be attributed to the disrupted sleep continuity caused by the frequent micro-arousals. When sleep is fragmented and interrupted, individuals may experience a reduced sense of restfulness, leading to decreased sleep satiation.
Consequently, this lack of restorative sleep can contribute to a cycle of heightened anxiety, as inadequate sleep can impair cognitive functioning, emotional regulation, and overall well-being.
Fuller, K. H., Waters, W. F., Binks, P. G., & Anderson, T. (1997). Generalized anxiety and sleep architecture: a polysomnographic investigation. Sleep, 20(5), 370-376. doi:10.1093/sleep/20.5.370