There’s no doubt about it: we live in a stressful world that only seems to get more stressful as time goes on. We stress about everything and anything: how to meet that work deadline, how to deal with that troublesome employee or boss, how to get all the kids to their activities, what to make for dinner…and the list goes on. An estimated 75% of people report experiencing high levels of stress, with 50% of people claiming that their stress has increased over the last five years. That’s a lot of stress!
How does all this stress affect the quality of our sleep? And our health, for that matter?
A certain amount of stress is healthy. It can motivate us to be more productive or perform better. Unfortunately, though, many of us are under more than that “healthy” amount of stress, so we tend to associate it with negative feelings; and more often than not, that stress translates into poor sleep.
An estimated 35% of Americans are not getting enough sleep, which means they are not getting the recommended 7 hours of sleep. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, and stress is at the top of the list of causes of insomnia. When we’re under a lot of stress, our sleep suffers either because we aren’t getting enough, we can’t get to sleep or we can’t stay asleep.
The following factors can come into play when you experience stress and directly impact your ability to sleep:
- Increased cortisol levels. When you experience stress, your body releases cortisol and other stress hormones which trigger the “fight or flight” response. In a normal, healthy response to stress, the body’s cortisol levels spike and then return to normal. Continued stress results in excessive levels of cortisol, which disrupts healthy sleep and decreases sleep duration as well as REM. In turn, this lack of sleep can lead to impaired memory, poorer mood regulation and ultimately more stress.
- Increased anxiety. Stress makes you anxious and worried. You start thinking about everything you need to do or how you’re going to do it. When it’s time to go to bed, your brain keeps running when it should be sleeping. In some cases, you may be so exhausted that you fall asleep quickly, but then you wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking (worrying) about whatever it is that’s making you stressed…and then you can’t fall back to sleep.
- Overburdened schedule. Many people under stress are faced with trying to fit too much into their day when there isn’t enough time to accomplish everything. This can affect sleep in two ways: either you try and finish everything at the expense of sleep (which means you sleep fewer hours to get more done) or you worry about how to accomplish everything you need to do (see point #2).
- Increased caffeine consumption. Caffeine can exacerbate the negative effects of stress on sleep because you might find yourself consuming more caffeine to keep yourself awake in order to tackle all the challenges in your day. Not only does caffeine directly inhibit your ability to sleep, but it has also been associated with higher levels of cortisol, which disrupts healthy sleep (see point #1).
- Increased alcohol consumption. Some people may want to have a drink to relax before bed, but alcohol actually makes you more wakeful. The alcohol may help you fall asleep more quickly, but it will keep you up later. It blocks REM sleep and interrupts your circadian rhythm, so you’ll likely wake up in the middle of the night.
Sleep is as important to your health as a healthy diet and regular physical activity, so when stress causes you to have trouble sleeping, your health will most likely be affected in some way – both physically and mentally. Physically, poor sleep can increase the risk of heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. It can also weaken your immune system, causing you to become sick more easily. Mentally, lack of quality sleep can negatively affect your concentration, performance, and productivity. Moreover, poor sleep has been linked to depression and other mental health disorders.
The relationship between stress and sleep is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Stress can cause or exacerbate sleep problems, such as insomnia. In turn, sleep problems can add to our stress levels because we feel more tired and then become less capable of handling stress. To make it worse, our inability to sleep well becomes a stressor in and of itself. In addition to everything else we’re stressed about, we become stressed about not sleeping!
The key is to break the cycle by eliminating or reducing the stress that caused the sleep problems in the first place. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Eliminate the source of stress. This seems fairly obvious and is easy enough to say, but not so easy to do. Think carefully about what is causing your stress and where you can take steps to get rid of or reduce that stressor.
- Practice being mindful before bed. Use relaxation strategies, such as meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga to help your mind and body enter a more restful state.
- Establish healthy sleep habits. These include having a bedtime routine, keeping consistent bedtimes/wake-up times, ensuring your bed is comfortable, and eliminating screen time at least 30 minutes before you go to bed. While there are some things you can’t control, you should try to control those things you can in order to maximize the potential for you to have a good night’s sleep.