Bedtime procrastination helps explain the link between anxiety and sleep problems – PsyPost

New research indicates that anxious people tend to engage in higher levels of bedtime procrastination, which in turn explains why they tend to experience more sleep problems. The findings have been published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Psychologists have recently begun to investigate the phenomenon of bedtime procrastination, or the tendency to put off going to bed despite having ample opportunity to fall asleep. There are a number of theories about why this occurs. For example, people who struggle with self-regulation may have trouble quitting other activities. Previous research has found that the inability to be mindfully attentive to the present is linked to bedtime procrastination.

Study author Rebecca L. Campbell of the University of Arkansas wondered whether those high in anxiety were more likely to engage in bedtime procrastination because they were avoiding the negative experience of trying to fall asleep while in a state of heightened arousal.

“Sleep loss is a public health crisis and if we are going to help people get more sleep, we need to understand what is getting in the way of their sleep in the first place. Bedtime procrastination might explain some challenges with getting enough sleep,” explained Campbell, who co-authored the research with Ana J. Bridges.

For their study, the researchers recruited 308 adult primary care patients from two primary care clinics between August 2019 and March 2020. Most of the participants (69.8%) were female and the average age of the sample was 33.30 years.

The researchers asked the patients how often in the past two weeks they had felt tense or nervous, felt irritated, and found themselves daydreaming, worrying, or staring into space. To assess bedtime procrastination, the patients were asked to respond to two questions: “In the past week, what time did you want to go to sleep?” and, “In the past week, what time did you actually go to sleep?” The patients also reported their total sleep time and problems with sleep in the past 2 weeks.

Campbell and Bridges found that more anxious patients tended to show greater bedtime procrastination and tended to sleep fewer total hours per night compared to their less anxious counterparts. Those with higher symptoms of anxiety also reported more problems with sleep.

Importantly, the researchers found evidence that the link between anxiety and sleep problems was mediated by bedtime procrastination. In other words, people with greater anxiety tend to experience more sleep problems, in part, because they engage in more bedtime procrastination.

“One of the ways that anxiety impacts our sleep is through bedtime procrastination (putting off bedtime despite ample opportunity to go to bed),” Campbell told PsyPost. “If you are noticing anxiety in your day-to-day and you regularly stay up later than you intended, it might be time to seek professional support.”

The researchers also asked the patients the extent to which they agreed with the statement “I think sleep is important for my well‐being.” Surprisingly, however, the patients’ attitude toward sleep was not associated with total sleep time, bedtime procrastination, or sleep problems.

“We found that the majority of participants agreed that sleep is important,” Campbell explained. “On one hand, this fantastic because it means we do not have to convince people why sleep is essential. On the other hand, it suggests sleep loss is more complicated than a matter of motivation. We will most likely need to address a series of complex barriers to fully address sleep loss as a public health crisis.”

In addition, the reason that anxiety is associated with greater bedtime procrastination is still unclear. Future research could examine whether bedtime procrastination is a form of anxious avoidance or whether people high in anxiety engage in bedtime procrastination because they are busy managing stressors.

“We did not collect data on why people were delaying going to bed, just that they were going to bed later than intended,” Campbell said. “Future studies will need to address this more fully. Additionally, the relation we noted is most likely bidirectional and will need further investigation.”

The study, “Bedtime procrastination mediates the relation between anxiety and sleep problems“, was published September 28, 2022.