Stress is a natural and completely normal part of life. For many of us, we may get stressed before a big interview, when moving house, when overloaded with work projects, or due to any major life change.
However, stress can quickly become a daily problem. Whether the stress and anxiety we’re feeling is due to something reasonable or seems to have no discernible cause, stress can seriously impact our health and quality of life.
And one way in which stress can damage our health is by affecting our sleep quality. Ever notice how when you’re stressed, you lose sleep over it?
Interestingly, poor sleep, or insomnia, can actually lead to higher feelings of stress and anxiety, which in turn keep us awake even more. Insomnia and stress create a nasty cycle that can leave us feeling fatigued, irritable, ill, and downright miserable.
Fighting stress while also suffering from insomnia may seem like a losing battle. You need sleep to feel less stressed. But you’re stressed so you can’t sleep.
So, is it possible to sleep well while you’re stressed? How can you identify the signs of stress-related insomnia?
Impacts of Stress on the Body
Sadly, stress is a growing problem in the world, with a noticeable rise over the past year.
Anxiety and stress can cause physical problems with the body, including:
- Major depression disorder
- Stomach and digestion issues
- Cramps, nausea, or diarrhoea
- Cardiovascular issues, like heart palpitations
- Respiration issues, such as feeling as if you can’t breathe
- Panic attacks
- Disassociation (zoning out)
- Difficulty sleeping or poor sleep quality
While it may seem that stress is “all in your head”, the symptoms are very, very real. Sleep deprivation is an especially dangerous side effect of stress that must be dealt with before you can begin to improve.
How Stress Affects Sleep
The way the body reacts to stress keeps you alive in dangerous situations, like when running away from a bear or fighting off a threat. However, this reaction isn’t really necessary in our everyday life (Usually, we aren’t running away from a bear or tiger). Yet, the flood of adrenaline and hormones, known as a “fight or flight” reaction, can leave us in a constant state of alertness.
Simply put, when we’re stressed or anxious, our body is prepared to deal with a physically dangerous situation that isn’t coming. Constantly being on “high alert” drains us and can cause damage to our bodies over time. Stress can also prevent us from sleeping.
Sleep is the process where our minds gradually shut off, relaxing in a safe environment to rest and recharge. Our “high alert” setting doesn’t allow us to sleep. The hormones and adrenaline in our bodies work overtime to keep us awake since our subconscious believes that danger is nearby.
Long-term stress can seriously impact our sleeping habits. In fact, stress affects every aspect of our sleeping experience, as outlined below.
- Falling asleep
Adrenaline and certain hormones in our system keep us awake. Lying awake or tossing and turning can only serve to make us more alert. Knowing that we need to sleep (for example, if we’ve got a big day at work the next day) can only make us feel more stressed - and even more unlikely to drift off.
- Staying asleep
Even if we do manage to fall asleep, stress-induced insomnia can have you waking up again only a few hours later. Once we’re awake, our real or perceived causes or anxiety can begin to bother us, making it difficult to fall back asleep.
- Sleep quality
Vivid dreams or nightmares, fitful sleeping, and frequent waking during the night can all contribute to that awful groggy feeling the next morning. Poor sleep can leave us feeling tired, irritable, and ill.
Sleeping While Stressed: Is It Possible?
Stress and insomnia often go hand in hand. It may seem impossible to break the cycle: your stress makes it difficult to sleep, and your poor sleeping habits are exacerbating your stress.
What can you do to break the cycle?
You may need to change your nighttime routine. For example, many people with insomnia get into a habit of going to bed late at night. If you know you’re going to lie awake until 2 in the morning, you might decide to sit up and watch TV until 1.30 am, even if you have to be up at 6:30 for work.
However, this means you aren’t getting enough sleep. An adult needs at least 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
Here are a few things you can do to get yourself back into the habit of a good night’s sleep:
- No electronics before bed
Closing your laptop and putting away your mobile may not be ideal, but the blue light from electronic screens can interfere with sleep. Putting your mobile far away from your bed can also prevent late-night messages or notifications from waking you up.
- Minimize caffeine intake
Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants. Coffee, tea, cigarettes or other products can keep you awake, especially if you take them in the hours before you go to bed.
- Stick to a sleep schedule
Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day helps to get your body into a rhythm. It can be tempting to stay up if you think you won’t sleep well. However, if your body begins to expect sleep at a certain time of night, you’ll find yourself getting tired naturally at that time.
Sleep schedules can be the key to breaking insomnia cycles.
- Create a good sleeping environment
Never underestimate the effects of creating a relaxing bedroom environment. The temperature should be optimal - not too hot, not too cold. Minimize outside noise, and keep the lights low and soft. Make sure you have a comfortable mattress and comfy pillows!
Yoga or meditation before bed can help to get you into a calm and relaxed state, ready for sleep.
Managing Stress and Insomnia
Dealing with the root causes of poor sleep - stress - is easier said than done. You may even struggle to identify the causes.
Don’t give up! Stress and insomnia aren’t fixed overnight. While you may need to seek medical help, lifestyle changes and consistency can go a long way in helping you overcome both your stress and poor sleep habits. Make some changes. De-stress. Test and measure. Sleep is something we all need for optimal health. It’s entirely worth the effort!