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Stress and Sleep: What You Need To Know

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Stress and sleep mix together about as well as water and oil.

By the time that you realize you’re having trouble sleeping, you’ve likely been trying to manage stress for quite some time. You find yourself distracted while performing your daily work and home routines and carry the anxiety of not performing those routines well.

The result is extended insomnia that begin to cut into your sleep regimen.

In the best case scenarios, you find you’re too stressed to sleep right away and get an average of three-to-five hours of sleep per night. For most adults, this is not enough.

The body and mind need those vital hours of sleep to recharge. Those who spend sleepless nights worrying about the things that are usually beyond their control discover that stress and sleep, or lack of sleep, go hand in hand.

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How Stress Disrupts The Sleeping Process

Almost anyone can look at you when you’re sleep-deprived and tell you‘ve had a sleepless night. Your eyes are often red and puffy. Your eyelids are heavy. Your responses are slower and you engage in more groggy reactions to everything in your immediate environment. Some people in sleep-deprived states even begin to care less about their appearance and how they perform on their jobs. This intensifies when stress is the reason you’re not sleeping. Let’s take a look at what is supposed to happen during normal sleep and how stress interferes with that.

Five Stages of Sleep

In stage one of sleep, your body is winding down and drifting into sleep state. You may be conscious enough to be startled by light noises in the room or respond when someone calls your name. Sometimes, people in stage one of sleep are moving between being awake and sleep. Sadly, those who are too stressed to sleep can stay in this stage for an entire night and never get the restful sleep that would prepare them for the next day.

Stage two of sleep happens when the body starts to make important changes in order to replenish itself with energy. The temperature of your body drops, and you’re no longer aware of noises or movement in the room. In fact, the body temperature change that happens naturally during sleep has prompted some people who are having trouble sleeping to choose cooler rooms in order to push good sleep patterns. In stage two, your breathing and heart rate are still as normal as they are when you are awake. The major difference is you’re not aware of what might be happening around you.

Imagine your body can’t seem to move past stage two of sleep because you’re stressed. Stress may elevate your heart rate and prevent your body from naturally dropping its temperature. This means your body can’t relax and the natural resting mechanisms that would normally help you rest and restore energy simply don’t happen.

Your breathing slows down in stage three and stage four of sleep. Doctors and sleep experts have noted that these are the deepest stages of sleep. This is also the time when much of the revitalizing work happens that your body needs for re-energizing. Your blood pressure is lower, and more of your blood supply is going to your muscles, which are also more relaxed.

Again, consider the stress and anxiety that can keep your muscles and tissues in a taut state. Oxygen‘s not replenished to muscles, and your blood pressure never experiences a decrease. Your body is in full overdrive even while you are supposed to be sleeping. Over time, even if you’re in your bed for eight hours and believe you’re getting adequate sleep, it’s not quality sleep and takes a toll on your body’s internal processes.

If you’re lucky enough to make it to stage three or four of sleep, however, your muscles are relaxed, your energy levels are heightened and tissues and cells have time to repair themselves. These crucial stages of sleep also foster hormone releases that help the body grow and develop in normal cycles.

Benefits of REM Sleep

In the Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, stage of sleep, most people dream. Their eyes are darting back and forth and their bodies can’t move because the muscles during this stage of sleep are completely not functional. During REM sleep, the brain is also very active and getting energized.

Most people move in and out of REM sleep every 90 minutes over the course of a night’s sleep. Some experts view this as a vital sleep stage because the hormone cortisol keeps increasing and prepares the body with new energy for the time it is awake.

The stressed sleeper rarely experiences REM sleep and deprives his body of much needed cell and muscle regeneration. This is a reason people who are constantly stressed can’t think clearly and function daily without sluggishness or work errors. Simply put, stress begins to deteriorate the entire quality of your life, especially when it invades proper sleep functions.

Why Good, Restful Sleep Matters

In many ways, stress is a good sleep inhibitor. It’s important to allow your body to experience each stage of sleep that should occur during the night, and stress completely works against that. If you’re constantly in a state of stressful sleeplessness, imagine what kind of jolt your system may experience if it never reaches the point of repairing tissues or allow your muscles and brain to rejuvenate.

People who hold on to life stresses for extended periods of time often do not know what they are doing to their bodies or the critical systems that keep them alive.

For starters, you’re weakening your immune system, which makes you more vulnerable to viruses, bacteria and illnesses. You’re throwing your hormones off balance, which can create a host of abnormal responses and trigger the onset of diseases. You’re denying your body a chance to replenish and function optimally.

Lack of sleep caused by stress is also one of the ways you can put your safety at risk. You’re sluggish and don’t have the proper energy to keep up with your responsibilities at a regular pace. The risk of people who work in stressful jobs like airline piloting and air traffic control trying to function on little or no sleep is massive and cyclical. The job is already stressful enough, and a lack of sleep escalates this stress to new heights. Many take the stress home and increase the lack of sleep even more. It’s not only their own safety at risk. They’re jeopardizing the safety of thousands of people who rely on them to operate at peak performance. Prolonged stress that prevents sleep puts all of these lives in danger.

Why Restful Sleep Matters

The Correlation of Stress and Sleep

If you experience insomnia that’s connected to stress, you are not alone. The minimum amount of restful sleep that is recommended for the average adult is 7 to 9 hours per night, according to the American Psychological Association. However, most people get about 6 hours nightly. The APA notes that an extra 60 to 90 minutes more of sleep cold help curb some of the functional problems associated with a lack of sleep.

Additionally, sometimes the lack of sleep that results from stress can become chronic if it lingers too long and escalate to a full-blown sleep disorder. The APA estimates this happens to 19 percent of American adults. More than 43 percent of adults have reported being sleepless in the last month because of stress. What’s more, they begin to worry about their lack of sleep, which intensifies their stress levels. For 21 percent of adults, this is a repeating cycle that wreaks havoc on the functional harmony of the body.

Whenever you’re stressed for long periods of time, your systems come under attack. Your central nervous system, for example, which signals your adrenal glands to protect you by starting the fight-or-flight response, is on high alert during stress. If you’re stressed all the time, it never knows when to relax. Eventually, this heightened state makes you irritable, gives you headaches and can make you depressed. In some cases, people take drugs and alcohol, or overeat, to cope and develop addictions.

effects of stress on body

Similarly, your respiratory and endocrine systems can create breathing challenges in your body if you’re stressed and not sleeping. Stressful sleep tends to act like a poison hormone in the body that triggers a host of adverse reactions. For example, your immune system is in place in your body to protect you from foreign substances that mean you harm. It does its best when stress begins, but if your immune system is repeatedly subjected to stress, the stress hormone is ultimately viewed as a normal function of your body. The immune system will do less and less to fight it.

In the same way, the stress associated with sleep can constrict blood vessels. Over time, this is a real issue and keeps your blood pressure elevated at dangerous levels. You may begin to see other effects, as well. A stressed body’s not optimized to have healthy sex or create babies. Couples may interpret and infertility issue as sometime being wrong with their bodies. What they may actually be experiencing is the prolonged effects of sleep deprivation and stress. The thing that stands between them and their ability to conceive is their own inability to control chronic stress and sleeplessness.

There’s a mental health risk associated with stress and not sleeping, as well, since the lack of sleep can adversely affect mood. It seems to escalate from a state of sluggishness into full onset depression. About 68 percent of those getting less than 8 hours of sleep say that they feel slow or inert. Forty-nine percent are irritable, and 45 percent have trouble concentrating enough to successfully complete tasks. Twenty-seven percent of adults who miss sleep because of stress eventually have feelings of sadness or depression.

Stress Sleep Affects Mood

If stress is short-lived, it has some real benefits. Increased heart rates and heavier breathing produce more oxygen in the body and can help you with response, especially if you’re in danger. It seems the body was designed for this short-term release. Prolonged stress, however, is dangerous. Anything that keeps you up at night with your mind and heart racing isn’t protective. Your health is at its best when you learn to let it go.

How to De-stress and Begin to Sleep Better

Most people stay in the recurring state of stress that disturbs their sleep because they simply don’t know how to get better sleep. They have no idea how to destress in order to allow their bodies the proper rest. Here are some helpful tips that could get you back on track to a good night’s sleep.

how to de-stress sleep better

  • Practice Deep Breathing: The benefits of deep breathing have been well-documented. Some alternative healthcare practitioners call this cleansing breaths. It makes you more attuned to your body’s internal processes, so that you can focus on making your body function optimally. In fact, your body is designed to release 70 percent of the toxins it builds up over time through deep breathing. You are releasing carbon dioxide that has moved from your bloodstream into your lungs. This improves metabolism, releases tension, massages your organs, moves you away from physical and emotional pain and clears your mind so that you can sleep.
  • Reduce Dependency on Electronic Gadgets: Perhaps you’re part of the electronic nation that’s decided life without a mobile phone, computer or other Internet-capable gadget is a sure death. You’re absolutely wrong. This kind of electronic dependency can create great anxiety, sometimes to the point that you have a meltdown if you can’t have access. To remove this as a handicap, try spending some quality time without your phone or computer each day. This is especially helpful during family time, dinners, or personal time you may spend reading your favorite book or engaged in a pastime. It will be easier to get to sleep without the dependency on your phone or computer.
  • Use Calming Triggers: For some people, music soothes their savage inner beast. They’re living their best lives when they can take an mp3 player with them on the train for their work commute or listen to it subtly in their offices. For you, it may be a favorite soundscape of cascading waterfalls or a harp. Everyone’s got a trigger that can almost immediately create a calming effect and help alleviate stress. Each person must find his own trigger and create easy access to it at any time of day. If you stay calm throughout the day, chances are this will carry over into your sleep regimen.
  • Exercise: Perhaps you don’t want to spend the money that would be required for you to go to a gym or fitness center. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find an exercise routine that works for you. Some people eat for 20 minutes and spend the remainder of their hour-long lunch break walking in the parking lot. You may choose to walk your neighborhood when you get home. In line with the latest trends, there are many free exercise demonstration videos online that could keep you in shape. It doesn’t have to be expensive or formal like a class. It just needs to be consistent movement of some kind. This puts your body on a schedule to get tired and go to sleep.
  • Find Destressing Foods: The adage that tells you that you are what you eat has never been wrong. Some foods create a calming reaction in your body and are naturally good for relieving stress and helping you rest. The potassium found in a banana or potato, for example, helps to lower your blood pressure. This counters the usual reaction of your body to stress and assists the blood-pressure-lowering mechanism that happens to your body in the third stage of sleep. The APA recommends eating foods like this to curb some of the long-term physical effects of stress. Other foods include olive oil, flaxseed, dark chocolate or cocoa, pomegranate, beets and pistachios.

How to Get Better Sleep

Although destressing your life is a good first step to breaking an aggressive stress-sleep deprivation cycle, it’s still not the only thing you need to do to get good sleep. If your body has been in deep stress for a while, that stress routine is its ritual. Here are some tips for getting a good night’s sleep in spite of your stress level.

How to get better sleep

  • Establish a Consistent Bedtime: Of course, no adult wants to be told when to go to bed. However, once fatigue kicks in, your body’s in control and tells you when it needs rest. Even if you’re stressed, it’s helpful to keep a standing date with yourself to head to bed. If you must rise earlier than 5pm in order to beat rush hour traffic and make it to work on time, you can’t stay up late every night watching cable movies. Establish the same bedtime and wake up time each night, and don’t break this routine on the weekends. Over time, your body will be programmed to go down at this time, and it’ll be easier for you to sleep.
  • Create a Recurring Bedtime Ritual: If you’re the type of person who simply slides out of your clothing, leaves them slumped on the floor and crawls into bed, it’s time for a new ritual. There are people who can set the clock by their bedtime habits. Some brush their teeth, shower, put on pajamas, do a crossword puzzle or read for an hour and check all the doors to ensure they are locked. Their bodies have come to rely on their routines for years. Similarly to establishing a consistent bedtime, rituals ready for body for the stages of sleep.
  • Keep the Room Cool: You’ve already read about how the body cools itself during the second stage of sleep. If you keep your own bedroom between 60 and 70 degrees, you’re assisting this natural process. If you’re married or sleep with a partner who doesn’t have trouble sleeping, you may have to compromise on the temperature of the room. However, make sure it doesn’t rise above 70 degrees. If so, your body will be fighting against your bedroom environment to get the rest it needs.
  • Use Proper Lighting: All animals, including humans, respond to conditions of lightness and darkness in their environments. This response is often referred to as a circadian rhythm. Through a 24-hour cycle, the amount of light an organism is exposed to determines its moods, behaviors and movement patterns, including sleep. This means you should probably avoid bright lights in your bedroom. They put your body on alert to stay in awake state. If you have trouble removing all light sources, try eye masks or black out curtains. The curtains, especially, will ensure your body doesn’t rise from sleep until your alarm sounds or until there’s full light in the room.
  • Time Your Meals and Snacks Appropriately: There are many myths and truths surrounding the consumption of meals right before your bedtime. Regardless of what you believe, heavy meals just before sleeping don’t foster good sleep or lower your stress levels. This is really noticeable if you eat foods that are spicy. The digestion problems that result can keep you awake all night and add to your stress. Be sure to leave a two- to three-hour span between your dinner meal and bedtime. If you get hungry before bed, try light snacks instead of a big meal. Similarly, avoid caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes. The stimulation will likely be too much for your sleep patterns.

Repeating Good Sleep Habits

The act of relieving yourself of enough stress in order to sleep well is not always an easy one. It is full of the kind of trial-and-error that can lead to lifelong self-discovery. Some people have no idea where to start this process because they have never connected the stress element to their own lack of sleep. Many attribute chronic sleeplessness to noisy neighbors, bedroom or household distractions or their own unique sleep avoiding bodily functions. Typically, none of these is the real culprit.

Until you make a proactive decision to discover your own natural sleep rhythm and eliminate stress from the equation, you may be in a sleepless rut for years. In fact, for some, stress leads to chronic insomnia. This brave choice you can make to change, and maybe even extend, your own life will have positive repercussions far into your future. For many, this choice can change the quality of their lives. They are less irritable, suffer less from depression and fatigue and find themselves enjoying their life successes more.

There are some who will endure the honest process of eliminating stress and still manage not to change their lives. Often this happens because they don’t change their behaviors even after they have a solid plan to eliminate the stress and sleep better. These people are sometimes addicted to the stress. They wonder what they would do without it and are content staying sleepless.

It’s not productive to understand your own patterns of sleeplessness, develop the tools to reverse them and then do nothing about this. Often, fear is a powerful deterrent. It keeps some people suffering in quiet agony rather than facing other good possibilities. Most people don’t realize the extent to which stress and lack of sleep can affect their overall health and, if chronic, shorten their lives.

One of the first steps in moving away from this downward spiral is to be honest about the things that are stressing you. Some of these things are completely solvable and within your realm of power to change. Then there are the other things you cannot change. If you know this, stress as a response becomes odd. It’s always best to accept the things that are beyond your control and release them from your worry radar. There are far too many people who worry about things that are out of their hands.

After you have assessed what you can change, it’s time to get to work changing it. No discovery you make about yourself should be an empty discovery. If it’s actionable, take the corrective action.

Stress and Sleep Don’t Mix!

It may take a while for you to find the right combination of practices that will help you get the proper amount of sleep. All remedies don’t work the same for everyone, so a cookie cutter approach won’t likely be effective. It’s best to experiment until you find the right remedy for you.

See our full list of stress management techniques.

Additional Resources

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About the author

I'm an avid reader and love anything to do with mindfulness and mental health!

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