This phenomenon is built into our biology. “Stress and anxiety activate our sympathetic nervous system, kicking us into fight-or-flight mode,” says Grace Dowd, LCSW. “Evolutionarily speaking, this response is designed to protect us from life-threatening situations.” The problem is, our brains can’t tell the difference between a lion chasing us and a looming work deadline.
Enter: Stress hormones. “Stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and even dopamine can be elevated during periods of stress, and they can remain elevated for some time, even after the stressor is gone,” says Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a board-certified doctor in psychiatry and sleep medicine. So once you get riled up about something — work, family issues, a pandemic — it can be hard to physiologically “come down” from that stressed state.
Most people recognize not being able to fall asleep is often related to stress. But there are quite a few other ways stress can impact your sleep. In turn, these sleep issues can have far-reaching effects on your waking life. Here, sleep experts explain what to watch out for, plus describe strategies they recommend for getting quality shuteye when stress is high.
Ever wake up after a full night of sleep feeling totally drained? That could be a sign your sleep quality is suffering due to stress, Dowd says. “When we are in fight-or-flight mode, our body is not able to access our rest-and-digest mechanisms that help us relax,” she explains. This response is designed to protect us from danger but can be frustrating when we can’t get restful sleep.
They might even be nightmares. In times of heightened stress, the limbic system — the brain’s primary emotion and memory center — has more demands to process, says Christina Pierpaoli Parker, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow of clinical psychology and behavioral sleep medicine at the University of Alabama Birmingham. “Because our brain likes order, it attempts to digest, organize, and integrate all of this stimulation (our thoughts, stressors and experiences) into narratives.” Enter: colorful, strange, stressful and possibly scary dreams.
“Sleep is a time for your body to heal itself and prepare for the next day,” notes Nicole Avena, PhD, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. But when you don’t get proper sleep, your body — including your brain — can’t repair the way it’s supposed to. “It cannot form the pathways that help you learn, remember and grow cognitively,” Avena explains. “This is why your memory is often worse the day after a poor night’s sleep.” Extrapolate that over time, and the effect adds up.
Similarly, fatigue due to stress-related sleeplessness can also rob us of our motivation to engage in healthy behaviors, like cooking and exercising, Parker says.
When you’re not sleeping well, your body has a more difficult time fighting off infection and illness. “Your immune system is hard at work when you sleep, defending your body against pathogens and recharging itself,” Avena says. “Lack of sleep may lead to more frequent colds and other illnesses.”
“When we’re in fight-or-flight mode, our body is not able to relax because it feels that we are in some sort of danger,” Dowd explains. Even if we do manage to fall asleep, stress hormones hanging out longer than they should can trigger random wakeups.
There’s nothing quite as frustrating as planning to sleep in to catch up on your hours, only to wake up at the crack of dawn. “If you notice that you wake up before your alarm goes off and your mind immediately starts to race, this is a good indicator that your sympathetic fight-or-flight system is activated by stress.”
A stress-related lack of sleep can also mess with the hormones that control hunger and blood sugar levels, according to Avena. “This is why lack of sleep can lead to cravings and overeating,” she says. If you’re suddenly having a hard time managing your weight and you’re also stressed and not sleeping well, these three factors could be related. “Getting enough sleep is key to eating healthier and managing your weight,” Avena adds.
HOW TO SLEEP BETTER WHEN YOU’RE STRESSED
If you think stress is behind your sleep problems, here’s the upshot: There’s a lot you can do to help yourself get more rest. Aside from seeing a sleep physician or a mental health practitioner, here are some strategies you can try on your own at home, straight from the sleep experts themselves.
- Practice basic sleep hygiene. This includes all the sleep tips you’ve heard before, but don’t actually use. The thing is, it really will help if you commit to it. “I cannot emphasize good sleep habits enough,” Dimitriu says. “No screens before bedtime or with waking, a cool, dark bedroom, and regular bed and wake times.” (And if none of that is possible for you right now, give these realistic sleep hygiene hacks a try.)
- Stay active during the day. “Sleep pressure, or the body’s ‘hunger’ for sleep, accumulates with increasing time spent awake, and dissipates with the opportunity to sleep,” Parker says. Cardio helps stimulate something called adenosine, which builds sleep pressure, so fitting in a heart rate-boosting sweat session is a good idea. If you’re pressed for time, try this at-home cardio workout.
- Create a wind-down routine. Some emerging evidence suggests taking a warm bath or shower 60–120 minutes before bed helps you fall asleep faster, Parker notes. These practices reduce your core body temperature, which is necessary for sleep. Though it sounds counterintuitive, this process of passive body heating helps heat from the body’s core rise to the surface, which has a natural cooling effect, according to Parker.
- Find a sleep mantra. If you’re struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep, a go-to calming phrase can be a lifesaver. “Having some sort of mantra like ‘I am safe and I am OK’ communicates to our brain and body that it is OK to relax and go to sleep,” Dowd explains. Another middle-of-the-night strategy that can provide relief: “It can be helpful to tell ourselves that our future selves can handle that situation in the morning.”
- Schedule worry time. Many people experience their worst worries and ruminations about the day’s events right before bed. “Thirty minutes of daily scheduled ‘worry’ time may help to reduce insomnia symptoms,” Parker says. “Using a calendar, schedule your worry period for the same time each day, in the morning or afternoon.” During that time, write down all the worries that come to mind. “Don’t pressure yourself to ‘solve’ anything,” Parker advises. “Instead, focus on listing one small step toward reducing that worry, even if the worry feels large and amorphous.”
At the end of each week, look for themes and patterns in your worries, Parker suggests. “Usually, the same ones get replayed.” Repeat this process, even after you start to feel better. “With sustained practice, like a muscle that strengthens with weight training, you’ll notice increases in your cognitive ‘strength’ to restrict, contain and control worry.”
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