This blog post is focused on how stress impacts sleep and some tips to cope with this.
Sleep is a fundamental process that our bodies crave. While the biological reasoning behind sleep is still a bit uncertain, there are several theories and known benefits that currently exist. Memory consolidation and muscle repair are a few examples of processes that occur, both of which play a role in daily functions such as concentration and learning. A lack of sleep can cause you to feel groggy and irritable the next day, as well as increase your stress levels. Drowsy drivers have shown to be as dangerous as drunk drivers, due to a slower reaction time and decision making. In addition to causing impairment in judgment, mood, and memory, sleep loss increases the risk of developing physical and mental health conditions.
Even though the importance of sleep is widely known, a sample of American adults report getting 6.7 hours of sleep per night on average, lower than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep. Of this sample, 43 percent report that stress has caused them to lay awake at night, and 21 percent report feeling more stressed after not getting enough sleep. Stress impacts sleep, including the time it takes to fall asleep, as well as the quality of sleep. Stress levels can impact the time spent in each sleep stage, and chronic stress can decrease the amount of time spent in deep sleep.
The Science of Stress
The body’s response to stress is controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA for short). When the body is under stress, the hypothalamus in the brain will signal for the pituitary gland, the master regulator of the endocrine system, which will then signal for the adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol and adrenaline are the main hormones associated with stress, with their levels typically highest in the morning and decreasing throughout the day. If the levels of these hormones are too high by the time you try to go to sleep, it may be difficult for you to fall asleep. In cases of chronic stress, the high levels of arousal for extended periods can create strain on the body and lead to more severe physical and mental health effects.
Sleep/Stress Cycle: How stress impacts sleep, and how sleep impacts stress
Stress impacts sleep, but sleep also impacts stress. Sleep regulates hormone levels, including cortisol and adrenaline which are associated with stress. So while stress levels can impact sleep quality, the quality of sleep can also impact our bodies stress levels the next day. The close relationship between sleep and stress creates a dangerous cycle that can be difficult to break. Stress makes it harder to fall asleep at night, and sleep loss triggers the body’s stress response system.
Short term effects of sleep loss include trouble concentrating, loss of motivation, as well as feeling more irritable than usual. In the long run, sleep deprivation can have even more severe health effects. A lack of sleep has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular issues, such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. Additionally, sleep deprivation can cause a loss of motivation and has been linked to depression and anxiety.
Combatting Stress During the Day
The first step in combating stress is identifying the sources of stress in your daily life. Daytime stress impacts sleep at night, so it is important to try to reduce stress during the day. Some factors may be obvious, such as a big test or problems at work. Positive events might even be the cause of stress (a new job, your friend’s birthday coming up, or going on vacation). The accumulation of small things – stuck in traffic, being late for a meeting – can additionally elevate stress levels.
While it is impossible to completely eliminate stress from life, there are strategies that can help regulate stress levels.
- Exercising. This can help lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels.
- Minimizing screen time. This also helps lower stress levels, as well as helps to improve sleep quality. Instead of spending the entire day in front of a screen, make an effort to try something else you enjoy.
- Breathing exercises, yoga, or meditation. These activities can help calm the mind and body.
- Take a break from work. Go for a walk, read a book, or take a warm bath. Taking an hour or two off for yourself can additionally increase productivity.
- Setting time aside to do things you enjoy. Prioritize activities that bring you joy to create a healthy work/life balance.
- Therapy can be an incredibly helpful tool for reducing stress.
The Impact of Working from Home on Stress and Sleep
Even after the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are still working from home either full time or part time. While there are many benefits to working from home, it has brought on its own challenges. Work related stress impacts sleep, and the lack of separation between personal and work life can blur boundaries. This can lead to working late hours in the night or even checking emails in bed. Here are some tips to help:
- Establishing a cut off time for work related activities. It is incredibly important to think about creating a time where you shutdown your computer and stop responding to emails.
- Creating a separate workplace, if possible. It is important to find an area besides your bed to work to avoid a connection between stress and your bed.
- Setting up a ritual that signals the end of the workday. At an office, driving or walking home signaled the workday was done. You want some signal to your brain you are done working. This can include journaling, deep breathing, or closing the computer and lighting a candle. You can be creative with your end of day ritual.
Tips to Cope With Stress at Night to Help Your Sleep
Since stress impacts sleep, it is important to calm your mind and reduce your stress before you try to fall asleep.
- Journaling or writing your thoughts down in the evening can help calm your mind before trying to sleep. If journaling tends to cause your mind to race or make you more anxious, try to do this a couple of hours before bed.
- Relaxing activities before bed: a warm bath, meditating, or gentle yoga.
- Avoiding technology before bed. The blue light suppresses the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. If you use technology take advantage of the night-time mode in the settings
- Breaking the connection between stress and your bed. If you are having trouble falling asleep, and lying in bed worrying, it is important to get out of bed. Try relocating to a different area for a calming activity.
- Having a notepad next to your bed. If you think of something you do not want to forget, or something you need to remember to do the next day, you can just sit up and write it down. Writing it down can help to get the thought of your head.
- Creating a nightly routine that signals your body and brain it is time for bed. You want to have a similar routine you do each night.
- Avoiding stimulating conversations before bed. If there are people in your life that tend to be triggering, try to talk to them an hour or two before bed or earlier in the day.
When incorporating stress management and relaxation techniques into your schedule, set realistic goals for yourself and adjust the plan accordingly. Some techniques might be better suited for different people and in different situations. Play around with what works for you and your own schedule. If you are still having trouble going to sleep and staying asleep, try seeking professional help. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a research supported treatment for sleep disorders, and it can benefit a variety of sleep issues. At Best Within You, we have Atlanta psychologists that are specifically trained in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. If you are lying in bed worrying about the day’s stressors, or tomorrow’s stressors, we also have therapists that can help you with anxiety. Please do not hesitate to reach out for a complimentary phone consultation. You can use this link to schedule therapy consultation.
Thank you to Rachel Chen, Best Within You Therapy & Wellness Intern, for this blog post.