On average, humans spend a third of their lives sleeping, which means it’s an important process that’s required for a healthy body.
Some causes of sleep deprivation are not under your control. Other causes like stress can be overcome, and in this article, we’ll take a look at what stress is, how it affects sleep, and what you can do about it.
What is stress?
You’re probably aware of the word’s meaning, but you might not know how the body perceives stress and reacts to it. So it’s a good idea to define stress first.
Before attributing your daytime sleepiness to stress-induced sleep deprivation, make sure you don’t have sleep apnea. There are straightforward treatments available for sleep apnea like a CPAP machine, however, stress begins with you and ends with you.
Stress is an emotional and physiological response to a perceived threat. It’s a normal response and is needed for optimal functioning. If you were never stressed out, you wouldn’t push yourself out of your usual comfort zone and into situations that required you to think on your feet. Simply, you wouldn’t survive in the big bad world we live in.
In response to perceived threats, stress kicks in, which is mediated by what’s called the sympathetic nervous system in the body.
The ultimate goal of the sympathetic nervous system is to release a hormone called epinephrine, which triggers the fight-and-flight response of the body. In turn, the fight-and-flight response triggers several changes in the body designed to get you out of trouble. These include:
- Dilated pupils, so more light can enter the eyes and you can see clearly
- Increased rate of breathing, so more oxygen can reach your muscles
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure, so more blood can be delivered to vital organs
- Dilated lung airways, so more oxygen can reach the bloodstream
When stressed, the body also releases a hormone called cortisol, which is more popularly known as the “stress hormone”. Cortisol has a wide range of metabolic effects, all of which are designed to help the body deal with stress. They include:
- Increased blood sugar
- Increased breakdown of muscle proteins so more glucose can be created
- Increased blood pressure
- Reduced immune response, which is not the most important thing when you’re dealing with a “threat”
- Redistribution of body fat
A healthy stress response involves a brief rise in epinephrine and cortisol followed by a fall back to normal levels, which is mediated by something called negative feedback.
In chronic stress, however, cortisol and epinephrine levels stay elevated for long periods. The body perceives itself to be in constant danger, and all the physiological changes described above are abnormally protracted. You can see how unhealthy this can get.
There are many things that can cause prolonged stress in your life, including relationship issues, loss of a loved one, difficulties at work, and even traffic jams. Being in a trauma can also trigger significant and prolonged stress. Let’s see how it can disrupt your sleep.
How stress disrupts sleep
Stress disrupts your sleep in a variety of ways. In turn, sleep deprivation makes you stressed. This gives rise to a vicious circle that can be hard to break.
The most important effect stress has on sleep is disturbed sleep architecture. Sleep architecture refers to different stages of sleep that all of us cycle through multiple times during the night. Stress has been shown to reduce the time we spend in slow-wave sleep.
Slow-wave sleep is also called deep sleep, and it’s during this stage that the body performs the repair of cells and tissues. You need to spend enough time in slow-wave sleep each night to feel rested and fresh the next day.
Since stress disrupts slow-wave sleep, you wake up feeling groggy. This can have many consequences depending on what you do during the day and is a potential trigger for further stress.
Stress has also been shown to increase the time it takes you to fall asleep. If you find yourself lying wide-awake in bed each night, it may be due to stress. This condition is called insomnia, according to Sleepify Insomnia Statistics 70 million Americans have some sort of sleep disorder or sleep pattern problems and if you think you are experiencing difficulty in sleeping then you should speak to your doctor about it.
Finally, stress can increase your nightmares and cause you to wake up more frequently during the night, both of which significantly reduce sleep quality and make you more susceptible to the harmful effects of sleep deprivation.
How to reduce stress for better sleep
If you feel your stress is getting out of control, it’s best to seek professional help. It’s also useful to be aware of certain coping techniques that you can use to reduce the overall stress in your life.
Before you can cope with stress, you need to learn to recognize it. Sleep disturbances are one sign that your mind is stressed. Other ways stress can show up include changes in how you think, inability to concentrate, changes in relationships, tense muscles, chest pain, increased awareness of your heartbeats (palpitations), and digestive problems.
Once you’ve identified that you’re stressed, consider the following helpful ideas to sleep better at night:
- Eat a healthy diet
- Reduce caffeine intake, especially before bed time
- Get regular exercise — at least 30 minutes a day
- Read a book before bedtime (not an e-book!)
- Turn off your TV and phone before bed time
- Learn relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, meditation, and yoga
Stress is a physiological phenomenon and causes widespread physiological changes in the body, all of which are mediated by the sympathetic nervous system.
If stress continues for longer periods, your health can suffer significantly. Stress disrupts sleep in a variety of ways, which leads to more stress. This triggers a vicious circle.
Luckily, there’s a lot of information online on how you can deal with stress. Some of the ideas are shared in this article but if you feel your stress is uncontrollable, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.