The Relationship Between Stress and Sleep

By Claudine

Sleep is a necessity for humans. It allows our bodies to rest and our brains to recharge. If we’re not sleeping well (or for long enough) our bodies don’t receive the full benefits of sleep which can include muscle repair and memory.

Even the slightest of sleep deprivation can affect memories, judgement and mood – as well as contribute to health problems such as obesity and high blood pressure.

Unfortunately, sleep and stress are a vicious cycle. Lack of sleep can heighten stress levels, which in turn can negatively effect sleep.

How Stress Affects the Body

Your body’s response to stress is an important survival mechanism. That ‘fight or flight’ feeling is a useful tool to have. When we are faced with a dangerous or stressful situation, the brain begins a series of processes that help us respond to a threat. Although sometimes useful, when it comes to a longer period of time, this stress can negatively impact our bodies.

  • Hormones: When faced with a threat, the body increases production of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, that trigger other physical changes and put the body into a state of fight-or-flight. In chronic stress, these hormones can be triggered when they’re not needed.
  • Muscles: In response to stress, muscles throughout the body reflexively tense up. If stress isn’t reduced, chronic muscle tension can lead to painful conditions like headaches and back pain.
  • Breathing: Stress can make breathing more short and rapid. For people with pre-existing breathing conditions, such as asthma, the body’s stress response can trigger their symptoms.
  • Blood Pressure: Stress hormones cause certain blood vessels to dilate and can also cause blood pressure to increase. Ongoing stress can lead to inflammation and increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke.

Sleep and Stress

Stress and sleep have a two-way relationship. Stress can lead to sleep loss and, conversely, loss of sleep can increase stress. While the links between stress and sleep are complex, research has demonstrated several effects of stress on sleep.

  • Trouble Falling Asleep: Stress often increases how long it takes to fall asleep. People with higher levels of stress and more chronic stress are more likely to experience insomnia (a common sleep disorder).
  • Altered Sleep Architecture: Sleep architecture describes the structure of sleep. While researchers are still learning about the effects of stress on sleep architecture, it appears that stress may reduce a type of sleep called slow-wave sleep. Slow wave sleep is important for maintaining physical and mental health. Stress may also affect rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep.
  • Nighttime Awakening: Feeling stressed can cause people to wake up more often during the night.
  • Stress Dreams: Stressful events can affect our dreams. Research suggests that stress can increase the frequency and severity of nightmares.

Insomnia isn’t the only sleep disorder linked to stress. Sleep bruxism is a sleep disorder involving nighttime teeth clenching and grinding. Chronic stress and muscle tension can increase the risk of sleep bruxism. Fortunately, using healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress may reduce nighttime teeth grinding.

How To Reduce Stress at Bedtime

Here are a few tips on how to reduce stress at bedtime, and to hopefully improve your sleep night after night. 

  • Pay Attention To Stress: Can you recognise the signs of stress? If you can see how stress shows up in your life, you can start to make a plan to change these. 
  • Improve Daytime Habits: Make sure that you’re eating a healthy diet (and restricting caffeine in the afternoons) and exercising regularly to help reduce stress at bedtime. 
  • Create a Nighttime Routine: Schedule time each night to destress before bedtime. Turn off the TV, silence your devices, and find a relaxing activity to calm your mind and body before bed.
  • Get Support: You don’t have to face stress alone. If you’ve tried to manage stress on your own and it’s still interfering with your sleep, call a healthcare professional. I am able to help you improve your sleep with my techniques, or will refer you to a medical professional if needed. 

Although stress can certainly interfere with getting a good night’s sleep, it doesn’t have to take control of your life. Understanding the body’s stress response and making a plan for managing stress can help you regain control and improve your rest.

Read more tips from sleep experts about how sleep effects a mother’s overall health and best ways to get your baby to sleep.

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