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.
Jan 19th, 2021 •
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Brooke Dulka, a medical writer and neuroscientist who received her Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of Tennessee, and she is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she studies the neurobiology of memory.
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 negatively impacts many factors of your health so it’s not surprising that stress can affect your sleep too,” says Dr. Dulka. “This is why its wise to address the factors contributing to your stress, because solving those helps take care of the sleep problem too in most cases.”
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 it comes to the relationship between sleep and stress, it is a double-edged sword. Not getting enough sleep causes problems related to stress to become exacerbated. But stress itself can lead to difficulty sleeping. And so the process goes on, with both stress levels and sleep problems feeding into each other.
The good news is that learning proper sleep hygiene (sleep habits) can help you to alleviate sleep problems and get a better night’s rest. That, in turn, will give your body and mind what they need in order to cope better with daily stressors.
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
“Start by identifying personal stressors and ways you can combat those like getting adequate exercise and eliminating the main causes of your stress,” says Dr. Dulka.
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.
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. Plus, exercise can protect you from future stressors by building stress resilience.
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
“Meditation, deep-breathing, and unwinding before bed can help fight stress-induced insomnia,” says Dr. Dulka. “Consider implementing these coping mechanisms into your routine to ensure better sleep.”
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, especially mindfulness 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.
Setting your night time routine
If you don’t already have a night time routine, you should start one now. All of the suggestions below are good activities to perform as you wind down for the night.
Start your relaxation routine an hour or two before your usual bedtime
As mentioned above, if you wait until you are ready to go to sleep to start unwinding, it will take you much longer to actually get to sleep. Your mind has to go through several stages in order to achieve sleep. For some people, this is an extremely easy process. Many of us know someone who can amazingly fall asleep the second their head hits the pillow. But for the rest of us, that seems like an impossible feat.
If you have difficulty falling asleep, or staying asleep, it definitely helps to have a night time routine. Going to bed with the day’s thoughts, worries, and to-do’s still going through your mind is a recipe for sleeplessness. During your pre-bedtime routine, dim the lights. Find an activity that is not stimulating or energizing.
Do not exercise just before you go to sleep. Sometimes you may have chores that need to be completed in the evening. If that’s the case, attempt to do them calmly and in a relaxed manner rather than rushing through them, especially if you will not have much time to unwind afterward.
Start an evening bath habit
Taking a warm bath is one of the easiest ways to unwind and feel relaxed. Sure, a massage is luxurious and relaxing, but most of us can’t get one every night before bed. Instead, let the warm water ease the tension from your muscles.
You can add Epsom salts or lavender essential oil to your bath to help you enhance the relaxation experience. The magnesium in Epsom salts is absorbed through your skin, and can help to induce a sleepy state. Lavender has long been known to be a relaxing fragrance.
Stretching provides many of the same benefits of massage, as well. We build up lactic acid in our muscles during the day. And most of us have experienced knots in certain muscles. Easy stretching can help release lactic acid build-up and unlock muscle knots. Even if your stress is related to mental worries, some calm stretching before bedtime can help to relieve that worry. Our minds and bodies are quite intertwined, and releasing the tension from one often works to release tension from the other, too.
Reading is a calming activity for many people. And some even find that it helps them to become drowsy. It really doesn’t matter what you read either. Some people find that fiction helps them to forget about nagging responsibilities and stress. And other people find that information heavy reading puts them to sleep. Use whatever works for you. Just avoid any reading material that works you up.
Talk to someone
Much of the problem with stress is that we keep everything in and to ourselves. Discussing your day with someone can help you to put things in perspective. And it always helps to have a supportive friend, partner, or family member who makes you feel like you are not alone in your struggles.
We often get distracted by all the technology and entertainment available. But a simple conversation is still one of the most relaxing activities we can indulge in. And the health and life benefits of socializing with loved ones are immense.
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.
Dr. Brooke Dulka is a medical writer and neuroscientist. She recieved her Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of Tennessee, and she is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she studies the neurobiology of memory.
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