Stress and Sleep

Stress is a common experience for Americans. According to a 2007 survey by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 70% of adults experience stress on a daily basis and 70% also report trouble sleeping. Coincidence? Experts think not.

Stress affects your sleep in more ways than one. The relationship between stress and sleep is bi-directional, meaning that each affects the other. When you’re stressed, your sleep suffers. Sleep better, and you’ll feel less stressed.

The relationship between stress and sleep is so clear-cut, that researchers have been able to put a number to it. For each additional stressor a person has, their risk for insomnia increases by 19%, according to one study’s calculations.

Keep reading to learn how stress impacts sleep and sleep impacts stress. We’ll review the effects of sleep deprivation on stress, how to use sleep as a stress management tool, as well as how to reduce your stress so you can sleep better.


How stress impacts sleep


Maybe you’ve been working overtime and burning the candle at both ends. Or you had one too many tense conversations with a colleague or friend. You’re exhausted, but you can’t sleep. What explains this phenomenon? Stress.

When your body is stressed, your brain sends it into fight-or-flight mode. Your muscles tense up. You feel alert. And a whole lot of hormones are released, including adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone). These combine to give you an energy boost and quicken your heart rate, so you’re prepared to meet any threats. The problem is, your body reacts with this same level of stress response, regardless of whether you’re facing a stressful work email or a lion that’s escaped from the zoo.

If you’re exhausted from stress, you’re not alone. Over 40% of American adults report lying awake at night due to stress. Stress and anxiety are strong triggers for insomnia and related sleep issues, including:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Waking up during the night and being unable to fall back asleep
  • Waking up earlier than desired
  • Waking up unrefreshed from sleep

Stress comes in many shapes and forms. It can be chronic, caused by hectic, to-do filled days. Or it can stem from a sudden trauma, such as a fight with someone or the death of a loved one.

Trauma-induced stress can cause acute, short-term insomnia symptoms. For example, one small study showed that those who experienced an acute stressful event, like combat, have poorer sleep efficiency and spend less time in REM sleep. Another study found that acute stress even impacts your heart rate variability during sleep.

Left untreated, long-term stress can develop into chronic insomnia. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), adults who have stress-related sleep issues experience them on at least a weekly basis, with half experiencing sleep issues multiple times per week.

Unfortunately, insomnia and the resulting sleep deprivation it causes is a stressor of its own. 75% of adults in the ADAA survey reported that their sleep problems increased their stress levels during the day.


How lack of sleep worsens stress


Sleep is essential to health. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t spend one-third of our lives doing it.

During a night of healthy sleep, your brain consolidates learnings from the day and commits them to memory, restores your muscles and body tissues, and wakes you up feeling refreshed. Even one night of sleep deprivation causes irritability, physical exhaustion, and lack of focus the following day. But the kind of sleep deprivation brought on by insomnia is chronic, and so are its side effects.

Regular, insufficient sleep heightens your stress and anxiety, impairing your judgment and increasing your emotional reactivity and sense of overwhelm. It’s tough to concentrate and you feel less energetic, which makes it difficult to perform well at work, school, or social situations. Without enough sleep, you’re simply less emotionally prepared to manage the stressors of daily life.


5 Most Common Stress Triggers


To manage stress, it’s not just important to get “enough” sleep, but to get “enough” quality sleep. In a 2016 study, researchers examined the effects of poor sleep on stressed out college students, both in terms of quantity and quality. The students who reported the lowest levels of satisfaction with their sleep, even if they slept longer than others, had higher cortisol levels. These students also reported needing multiple alarms to wake them up in the morning and experiencing daytime fatigue that interfered with their academic performance.

When you don’t resolve your stress issues, your body stays in a perpetual state of tension and anxiety that makes it difficult to sleep at night and increases your risk for physical health issues in the long run. Over time, sleep deprivation increases your risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and anxiety and depression disorders. Long-term stress also increases a person’s risk for heart disease and depression, along with high blood pressure, illness, indigestion, and teeth grinding.


Sleep and work-related stress


According to the latest Stress in America Survey by the American Psychological Association, American stress levels are at an all-time high, and nearly two-thirds of us are worried about work.

Work stress has a particular effect on sleep. Stress from work makes it tougher to fall asleep at night. In turn, poor sleep impairs one’s ability at work, creating a vicious cycle where you try to make up for it by working harder and longer. Although the reality is you’re working less effectively, due to being sleep-deprived.

Workaholism is tied to poor sleep, burnout, depression, relationship problems, and myriad health issues. Regarding sleep, workaholics are significantly more likely to get less of it, experience more disturbed sleep, feel unrefreshed upon waking, and participate in drowsy driving. It takes them much longer to fall asleep than their non-workaholic peers, and the higher the tendency for workaholism, the longer it takes.

Even without the compounding effects of workaholism, work can interfere with sleep. Stress from thinking about tomorrow, a common experience for many workers, is itself a risk factor for disturbed sleep, according to one study. The same study found links between high stress and reduced overall sleep time, as well as less time spent in restorative deep sleep. In turn, the shortened or disrupted sleep increased the cortisol levels of participants in the study.

This cortisol-sleep relationship in present among many with disturbed sleep. People with fragmented sleep tend to have higher cortisol levels at night, arousing their body and preventing them from restful sleep. Scientists have been able to mimic these effects on sleep through cortisol injection.

Individuals who work night shifts experience more disturbed sleep, for obvious reasons. They’re forced to adapt their sleep schedule to a time period that’s directly opposite to the body’s natural circadian rhythms. As a result, they experience lower-quality sleep, in large part due to their cortisol levels.

Cortisol levels operate in opposition to melatonin. In healthy adults who follow a normal sleep schedule, melatonin rises at night while cortisol rises in the day. For night workers, their hormone levels stick to that natural schedule, instead of their artificially set sleep schedule. Their cortisol levels are highest during their sleeping hours and lowest during their waking, working hours.


cortisol levels for night shift workers


It’s clear that stressful work schedules, long hours, and responsibilities are all risk factors for poor sleep. In fact, one study of nearly 6,000 healthy adults found that high demands at work more than doubled the risk for disturbed sleep. Fortunately, however, having a strong social support system was shown to mediate the negative effects.

Workers can also find solace through a regular sleep and exercise regimen. In 2017, researchers studied a particular work stressor: how being undermined or bullied at work leads workers to turn their aggression on others outside of work. By sleeping well and exercising regularly, workers were able to leave their issues at work.


Sleep and stress management


Here’s the good news about sleep and stress: fix one, and you’ll often improve the other one. Good sleep reduces stress, and less stress improves sleep.

In one study, participants were made to get only 4.5 hours of sleep each night for a week, well below the recommended 7 to 8 hours for adults. Understandably, they reported higher stress, poorer mood, and mental exhaustion across the board. But once they were allowed to return to their normal sleep schedule, their mood improved!

Improving sleep quality reduces stress the following day and also improves positive affect, according to a 2015 study. Interestingly, exactly how sleep helps you manage stress may change based on your age. The same study found that for older adults, better sleep quality was especially helpful during times of low stress, while for younger adults, more sleep quality was beneficial during times of high stress.

It’s not just the stressors themselves, but your reaction to them, that determines your odds of insomnia, as one 2014 study showed. The researchers noted that mindfulness-type meditation and therapies were especially effective at minimizing stress and improving sleep, as were self-distractions strategies – such as going to the movies with a friend. We’ll review some of these strategies in the next section.


How to reduce stress and sleep better


As we’ve covered in the sections above, less stress is key to enjoying more restful sleep. The better you sleep, the less stressed you’ll feel during the day. The following tips will help you shake off your stress and sleep easier at night.


Daytime tips


1. Follow a regular sleep schedule.

Make room in your day for you to conceivably get 7 to 8 hours of sleep.

Then, go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, even weekends. You want to train your mind to follow a regular sleep-wake cycle.

2. Watch your diet, particularly your caffeine intake.

Caffeine affects everyone differently, but it is a stimulant regardless. Caffeine is present in coffee, tea, soda, and even foods like chocolate. Stop drinking it by the early afternoon or reduce your consumption in general to see how it affects your sleep.

Also take care to avoid heavy meals late at night, which can upset your stomach and make it tough to fall asleep.

3. Take breaks during the day.

You don’t want your stress to build up into a huge ball for you to untangle on your drive home from work. Schedule time for you to decompress during the day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Take a walk around the office or outside, or go sit somewhere quiet and relax.

Better yet, make one of those breaks an exercise break. Exercise is great for fighting off stress, and it also tires your body so you’re ready to fall asleep at night. Just don’t exercise too late in the day; otherwise your body will be too amped up to be in the mood for sleep.

4. Take action to reduce the stressors in your life.

See what you can cut out to make room for stress-relieving activities like social outings with loved ones, yoga, or simply getting a breath of fresh air. Commit to fewer activities or responsibilities at work. Lean on family and friends for support during especially stressful times.

5. Seek out cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT is the most effective treatment for insomnia, and it’s also proven to be helpful for managing stress. Therapists trained in CBT work with patients to help them recognize the negative thoughts, behaviors, and reactions they default to, so they can intercept them and replace them with healthier ones.

Stress is compounded by negative thought patterns and behaviors, such as overgeneralizing things (you arrived late at work, therefore you are a terrible person). These thought patterns share many similarities with those that trigger insomnia. Through CBT, individuals overcome these cognitive tendencies so they can enjoy better sleep and less stress.


Nighttime tips


1. Transform your bedroom into a haven for sleep.

Invest in a luxuriously comfortable mattress and bedding you can’t wait to get into at night. Make your bedroom as dark and as cool as possible, using blackout curtains or an eye mask if necessary.

Clear your bedroom of clutter, especially anything that could remind you of stressors from your waking hours. Only use your bed for sleep and sex, and never do work from your bed. You want your mind to associate it with relaxation only, not stress.

2. Develop a calming bedtime routine.

In the 30 to 60 minutes before bed each night, repeat a set of activities to train your mind into recognizing it’s bedtime. You might drink a cup of herbal tea (chamomile is especially helpful for soothing stress in those with anxiety disorders), or draw yourself a warm bath. More activity ideas follow in the tips below.

One activity you should definitely include? Turning off all your electronics. The problem with electronics for the sleep-deprived and stressed-out is twofold. For one, the blue light in these devices mimics sunlight, activating your brain tino alertness. These devices also serve as stress delivery systems, pinging you about work emails, texts, and social media notifications.

3. Slow down with deep breathing exercises.

Stress quickens your heart rate and tenses your muscles. Reverse that response by slowing down your breathing. Count as you inhale and exhale, and aim to make your exhales twice as long as your inhales.

Alternately, practice inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other, then switching. This takes a lot of focus to execute successfully, so your brain will be forced to stop thinking about your stress while you do it.

4. Try progressive muscle relaxation.

Starting with your toes, systematically tense and release each of your muscle groups. Work your way up to shoulders and even your facial muscles. Like the breathing exercises, you are giving your mind something to focus on besides your worries.

5. Practice meditation or visualization.

Similarly, a meditation practice requires you to focus intently on one thing, whether it’s a word, mantra, or a visualization of a calming scene. For help getting started, search for smartphone apps or YouTube videos that provide coaching and guided meditation focused on sleep or stress, specifically.

6. Explore aromatherapy.

Scents can have a calming effect on the body. You can rub a few drops of essential oils into your hands, create a facial steam, use a diffuser, or apply them in another way.

Just be sure you choose an essential oil that promotes sleep, instead of an activating citrus scent. Lavender calms the nervous system, making sleep easier. Other options for reducing stress and insomnia include valerian, ylang ylang, and cedarwood.

7. Use a diary.

Spinning thoughts are a hallmark of stress and insomnia. Get them out of your head by writing them down into a diary.

This could take the form of a to-do list. Write everything down so you can deal with it tomorrow instead of panicking tonight. Or your diary could just be a mix of your thoughts and worries. Either way, the writing process gives you a sense of control as you organize your thoughts.

8. If you wake up, bore yourself back to sleep.

It’s normal for everyone to occasionally wake up during the night, stressed or not. When this happens to you, stay calm.

If you find yourself lying there for more than 15 or 20 minutes, get up and leave the bedroom. You don’t want your mind to come to associate your bed as a place you lie awake, unable to sleep. Distract yourself in another room with a boring activity like reading a textbook, listening to monotonous music, or coloring. When you feel tired again, return to bed.


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