How Does Stress Affect Sleep?

The answer to this question might be just what you need to create a plan to sleep better at night.

By Sheryl Grassie

We’ve all experienced a night of restless sleep caused by stress. Maybe you were processing a fight with a spouse or the loss of a job, or maybe you were nervous about something that you had coming up the next day.

When you don’t get enough sleep, you’re likely to experience mental and physical fatigue, moodiness, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating. In turn, these side effects of poor sleep can result in further stress, which itself yields trouble sleeping, which leads to more stress…and the cycle continues on repeat.

When your sleep deprivation becomes chronic, your health can suffer. Too little sleep increases your risk of a variety of illnesses, including depression, obesity, and heart disease.

This begs the question, why exactly does stress make getting enough sleep so difficult? And what, if anything, can you do about it?

How Stress Influences Sleep

Stress is a normal part of life. Our bodies evolved to respond to danger by boosting arousal via something known as the fight-or-flight response. Once the danger was properly dealt with, the feelings of alertness would slowly fade.

This stress response evolved to protect us from imminent dangers, such as an approaching tiger or tropical storm. But the same stress response is cued when we feel worry, anger, or other negative emotions. This is why you can feel a racing pulse and arousal when you’re upset from an argument—your body is preparing for you to flee or fight.

When you head to bed with daily stressors floating through your consciousness, the stress you feel is a sign of heightened arousal. This wakefulness makes it tough to fall asleep or sleep soundly through the night. And if you experience chronic stress, it can lead to the sleep disorder insomnia.

What’s particularly challenging about stress-induced insomnia is that each one feeds the other. Not only does stress make it hard to sleep, but not getting enough sleep increases the release of stress hormones. Meaning, you are more likely to feel stressed when you experience insomnia.

How to Decrease Stress and Improve Your Relationship with Sleep

For many people, sleep troubles can be managed by treating stress and anxiety. We’ve put together five tips that you can use to reduce stress and sleep soundly at night.

1. Identify Personal Stressors

The first step to managing stress is to identify what’s causing it. You can do this by yourself or with the help of a professional, such as a therapist or life coach.

You might find that your stress comes from a job that you aren’t happy with, a relationship that’s always on the rocks, or from juggling too many responsibilities.

2. Address the Stress

Once you’ve identified the sources of your stress, it’s time to come up with a game plan to tackle them. Maybe you look for a new job, talk to your manager, or go to couple’s therapy.

Of course, not every stress can be eliminated. But understanding where your stress is coming from and doing what you can to control it can help to manage your stress, even if you cannot completely eliminate it.

3. Exercise

It seems like no matter your trouble, the first thing experts will tout is exercise. But there is a reason for this: exercise is incredibly beneficial for the body and the mind.

When you exercise, feel-good chemicals are delivered to your brain. Not to mention, getting moving can quiet your mind and give you an excuse to do something you enjoy, like hiking or yoga.

Try to add in three 30-minute cardio sessions each week. And if that’s not possible, do things like walking your dog, gardening, or going on walks with friends and family. Anything that gets you moving is beneficial for your mood and your sleep.

4. Practice Meditation and Deep Breathing

Learning how to calm your mind is a central component of stress management. Both meditation and deep breathing are relaxation techniques that help to reduce stress levels and enhance your quality of sleep.

Deep breathing can be utilized in the moment when you’re feeling stressed to help slow your nervous system. As your heart rate slows, you stress hormones will slowly fall, allowing you to feel clear-headed and fall asleep more easily.

Meditation is a powerful tool to counter sleep problems before they start. Before you head to bed, set aside a minimum of 10 minutes for meditation. There are plenty of meditation apps, podcasts, playlists, or videos that you can use as you become familiar with meditation.

5. Unwind Before Bed

To fight stress-induced insomnia, allow yourself an hour or more before bedtime during which you relax and unwind. Limit distractions like television, social media, or your phone, all of which can boost your arousal and stress levels.

Try things like gentle stretches, a warm bath or shower, or reading a book, followed by a brief meditation session. This can help to clear your mind of daily distractions so you can head to bed in a calm, relaxed state of mind.


Stress and sleep are intricately tied. When you’re stressed, it’s hard to sleep. And when you don’t get enough sleep, you’re likely to feel more stressed the following day. To encourage good sleep, do things to manage stress and relax before bedtime. The result? A happier and healthier life.

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