Stress is a part of life for all of us. There are stressors that occur in our everyday lives, worries and concerns that often relate to families and relationships, to work and finances. There are also times when stress can become more intense and acute, in response to life’s changes and events, such as switching or losing a job, moving to a new place, or coping with illness. All stress can influence sleep, and sleep, in turn, can affect how you cope with stress in all its forms. Poor sleep can exacerbate stress, and stress interferes with sleep. The good news is that tending to sleep can help reduce stress, and coping better with stress can improve your sleep. Taking care of both is important to overall, long-term health.
Disruptions to sound sleep
Stress can interfere with sleep in several ways. Stress may decrease the amount of time spent in deep sleep, a period of sleep when the body repairs and restores itself. Stress can also make sleep more restless and fragmented, leading to frequent or prolonged awakenings throughout the night. As a result, people under stress tend to sleep less overall, and have lower sleep efficiency.
The body’s responses to stress and poor sleep
A number of physiological changes occur within this sleep-stress relationship. The presence of stress raises levels of cortisol, a hormone that stimulates alertness and vigilance, raising heart rate and blood pressure. Typically, levels of cortisol fall in the evening hours, as one element of the body’s natural preparation for sleep. High cortisol levels at night interfere with the release of melatonin, a hormone that is essential to the regulation of sleep-wake cycles. Poor sleep itself can further influence cortisol, causing levels to rise at times when they would otherwise be low.
Changes to sleep architecture
Stress also alters sleep cycles. Stress has been shown to decrease time spent in light and deep sleep, and increase time spent in REM sleep. REM is an important sleep stage for restoring mental function, a phase when the brain processes emotions and memories. With these changes to normal sleep architecture come disruptions to the normal patterns of brain waves that occur during REM and other stages of sleep. Evidence links the alterations of sleep’s theta waves—brain waves related to concentration, creativity, and dreaming—to stress. In addition, too much time in REM sleep can cause daytime sleepiness and fatigue, which can further disrupt normal sleep cycles as well as mood.
Sleep can soothe stress
Sleep can function as a powerful stress reducer. A regular routine of high-quality sleep calms and restores the body, improves concentration, regulates mood, and sharpens judgment and decision-making. We are better problem solvers when well rested, and better able to cope with stress. Lack of sleep, on the other hand, reduces energy and diminishes mental clarity and focus. Research demonstrates that lack of sleep renders us more emotionally reactive, more impulsive, and more sensitive to negative stimuli. These sleep-driven cognitive impairments can give rise to stress in any number of ways, from creating difficulty in relationships to causing problems with job performance. They also interfere with the ability to cope with stress, whether everyday or acute.
Coping with stress to sleep better
There are a number of strategies that can help you manage stress so that it doesn’t interfere with sleep. Taking time to relax and wind down before bed is important to sleeping well and easing the stress of the day. A period of quiet time before bed allows you to step away from daily worries, to set them aside before attempting to fall asleep. Relaxing the body physically can help: a warm shower or bath, a massage or some light stretching can release physical tension and encourage the onset of sleep. If you find yourself struggling with stress and worry during the night, these techniques can help:
- Make a plan to tend to worries and concerns at a time other than bedtime. Choose a time during the day to deal with the stress you’re facing, and keep bedtime a worry-free zone. If you find yourself carrying stress to bed with you, keep a notepad on the bedside table where you can write down your concerns, to set them aside before sleep.
- Learn to meditate. Meditation has been documented to relieve stress and improve sleep.
- Be grateful. Taking time every day to give thanks for things that are good and comforting to you can help ease stress. Create a practice of giving thanks before bed for positive parts of the day.
Simple mind exercises can help avoid the escalating, sleep-depriving cycle of worrisome thoughts. Breathing exercises can also help you to relax. Slow your breathing and start to relax by inhaling to a count of four, holding your breath for a count of eight, and exhaling on another count of four.
It may be impossible to eliminate stress from life. But with attention and practice, you can break the sleep-stress cycle, both to feel better and to sleep better.