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Sleep and Stress

Unsweet Dreams: How Stress Keeps You Up at Night

By Noelle Chandler

It’s probably not surprising that when you feel stressed, you are less likely to sleep at night. Most of us have been there, lying in bed staring at the clock as we think about the looming presentation at work, or the big test at school, or the serious conversation we need to have with a partner.

By definition, stress is a natural response to a potential threat in your environment. Just like the fight, flight, or freeze response you might experience before a fight, your body produces stress hormones in the brain–mostly adrenaline and cortisol–which put your body in high alert mode. Physically, that means your heart beats faster, you might breathe quicker or more shallowly, your blood pressure rises, and your temperature might spike, causing sweaty palms and underarms. 

High-stress levels can be really helpful in certain circumstances; after all, stress is your body’s defense system to keep you safe. But, as you’re probably well aware, living in a constant state of stress can have very severe consequences on your health, including your sleep.

Common Symptoms of Stress

According to WebMD, you might be stressed if you find yourself more easily agitated or less patient than usual. You might feel easily overwhelmed by things you used to handle without much trouble. Feelings of sadness, loneliness, worthlessness or lack of control are also common symptoms of chronic stress. Other symptoms include:

  • Avoiding other people
  • Procrastinating
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Changes in appetite
  • Shaking, trembling, or twitching muscles
  • Soreness or pain in your chest, neck, shoulders, or jaw
  • Insomnia or other sleep problems
  • Restlessness
  • Trouble with memory or concentration

One of the most concerning symptoms of stress is the onset of insomnia, which only makes matters worse.

How Stress Impacts Sleep

Here’s why stress keeps you up at night.

When in the presence of danger, or some type of stressor, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid that keeps us alert so that we can fight or flee the stressor. In the short-term, cortisol is very important for survival. For example, if you come across a car accident, the release of cortisol is what gives you the alertness to respond appropriately to the danger. 

However, if cortisol levels stay elevated (because you can’t rid yourself of the stressor), there are serious consequences, including the inability to fall asleep. The worst part is, sleep deprivation and stress contribute to a negative feedback loop that can be difficult to break and often results in mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and depressive disorders. To put the issue of chronic stress into perspective, in our current day in age, 78 percent of adults live in a constant state of stress-induced by finances, job security, relationships, and social pressure. 

Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

The National Sleep Foundation recommends at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults to stay healthy. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 35% of people get less than 7 hours of sleep per night

This can be a real problem. While a single restless night here or there might not be a big deal, chronic stress can cause long term sleep deprivation. This lack of sleep might look a little different from one person to the next—for example, you might have problems falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting enough deep sleep—but the consequences are equally as dangerous.

Sleep deprivation can cause a host of serious health problems because it’s during sleep some of the most important bodily functions take place. Sleep is when your body regulates hormones, processes memories, and repairs cellular tissue. In some ways, sleep is the glue that holds us together. Missing out on this critical sleep can lead to a decrease in immunity, increased risk of diabetes and obesity, high blood pressure, and significant weight loss or weight gain in both children and adults. Since sleep is when your body usually repairs the daily wear and tear on your muscles, sleep problems can also lead to muscular pain and tension, weakness, and trembling or twitching. Additionally, lack of sleep can cause mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, decreased memory retention and concentration, and more.

Do these symptoms sound familiar? Yes, stress and sleep deprivation can cause very similar symptoms because they are so closely related. This can be really bad news because stress causes lack of sleep, which only amplifies all of those other symptoms, quickly snowballing into a nightmarish cycle.

How to Lower Stress and Get Better Sleep

All of that might sound a little scary–but don’t let it add (more) stress to your day. Stress management can look a little different for everyone, but there are a ton of actionable ways to manage your stress levels. 

Here are just a few of the best ways to reduce stress and improve sleep:

  • Exercise. Even 20 minutes of light exercise, like walking, helps produce the “happy” chemicals in your brain, which can boost mood and produce deeper sleep. For an extra boost, get out in the sunshine–the vitamin D your body makes from sunlight is an essential building block for those happy chemicals! Just make sure you get that walk in at least two hours or more before bed.
  • Ease Off the Caffeine. This one might be the most obvious, but for many, it’s also one of the hardest. Caffeine is addictive, so you might have to step it down slowly to prevent headaches. If at all possible, limit it to the morning, and cut yourself off around noon (or, if you’re a night owl or shift worker, try to stop caffeine intake after your second meal of the day).
  • Find Support. Whether this means talking to a counselor, a friend, a family member, your journal, or even the dog, people often underestimate the power of venting. Getting the stress off your chest can help you breathe again. Just make sure whoever you talk to is someone who will listen fully, in a way that is helpful for you. You might let them know beforehand, for example, whether or not you want advice or just a space to let off steam.
  • Practice Thought Management. Practicing healthy thinking patterns can make a huge difference. Keep an eye out for things like overestimating the consequences (“I forgot to turn in that paper–I’m going to fail the whole class!”), black and white thinking (“I messed up that order–I’m a total failure!”), overgeneralizing (“My boss NEVER listens to me!”), mind-reading (“My girlfriend didn’t say she loved me before she left for work–she must be so angry with me!”), and fortune-telling (“There’s no way I’m going to get that promotion.”) Now, that doesn’t mean that those examples are always wrong, or unhealthy; I’m sure we’ve all had a boss who literally never listened to us. But, make sure to take time to evaluate whether your thoughts are truly accurate and reflective of the situation. And, if not, look for a more balanced thought to replace it with.
  • Try Relaxation Techniques. The same things don’t work for everyone, but meditation, yoga, and mindfulness are all practices that have been shown to help with stress and anxiety, and in turn, improve sleep. There are many free apps to try, so don’t give up if the first couple isn’t a great fit!

Don’t underestimate the power of healthy eating, and establishing a regular, healthy bedtime routine. And, finding the right mattress can make a huge difference too! The point is, you don’t have to let stress get the best of you. Sleep deprivation may carry some troubling side effects, but it IS possible to be stressed, and still get a good night’s sleep.

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