Sleep Resources

Everything You Need to Know About Stress and Sleep

Learn more about the connection between stress and sleep and what you can do to improve your overall well being.

By Megan Griffith

If there was one thing about your life you could magically fix, would you pick your stress levels or your sleep schedule? It turns out, you can choose both. Stress and sleep are inextricably linked, and when you make improvements to one, the other benefits as well. In this article, we’ll go into more detail about the sleep-stress connection and offer real-world tips to help you get better sleep and stress less.

The Sleep-Stress Cycle

It probably comes as no surprise that sleep and stress are connected. You’ve probably noticed that it’s a lot harder to sleep when you’re stressed to the max, and it’s no accident that you’re more prone to stress when you haven’t slept enough. The way stress and sleep feed into each other this way is called the sleep-stress cycle, and in no time at all, it can become a vicious one. But how exactly does this cycle work?

It starts with the sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system responsible for our fight, flight or freeze response, which is meant to help us cope with danger. However, as Dr. Afrosa Ahmed MBBS, MRCGP, DCH, says, “This is a useful tool for the human body if you were, say, getting ready to flee a predator, as our neanderthal ancestors did. However chronic stimulation of this system produces cortisol and adrenaline – which leads to burnout and stress. Our blood pressure rises, our heart rate goes up, our breath quickens. This isn’t the chemical balance we desire to help us go to sleep.”

This kind of stimulation is not conducive to sleep at all, and it tends to keep us awake longer and sleep more poorly when we do finally fall asleep. Then we wake up sleep deprived, and that sleep deprivation causes us more stress. According to a study done by the American Psychological Association, 21% of adults report feeling more stressed after getting inadequate sleep. Another study looked at medical residents on call for 24 hours and compared them to people who worked a normal day. They found that the residents on call had significantly worse mood and concentration and significantly higher levels of cortisol, which is directly linked to stress.

This additional stress makes it harder to sleep, which causes more stress, and the cycle goes on and on until you’re a sleep deprived, stressed out mess. As you can see, it’s so simple for the sleep-stress cycle to become a big problem. But that cyclic nature makes it simple to turn things around too.

Sleep Tips and Treatment for Stress

Even if you can only do one thing to improve your sleep or reduce your stress, that’s okay. One small, positive change can have a snowball effect. If you aren’t sure what kind of changes you need to make, that’s where we come in. We’ve researched sleep health and stress relief to determine what really works and what doesn’t. We’ve found that sleep hygiene, moderate exercise and a few different relaxation techniques are the best ways to cope with stress and get a better night’s sleep.

Sleep Hygiene and Routine

Sleep hygiene is a lot like regular personal hygiene. It’s all about forming habits and adjusting your environment to help promote better sleep. Research shows that when people are educated on proper sleep hygiene, they sleep better, longer, and function better throughout the day. So let’s take a look at some of the best ways you can change your environment and your habits to get a better night’s sleep.

Stick to a consistent sleep schedule.

Every parent knows that the best way to get your kids in bed on time is to stay consistent on bedtime. If the kids know they can squeeze an extra half hour out of you, they’re going to. The same logic applies to adults, except we have to be our own parents. Going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning (yes, even on the weekends) can significantly improve your sleep quality. According to a case study done in 2005, sticking to a consistent sleep schedule can significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. That means more sleep for you.

Have a soothing bedtime routine.

Another way to ensure that you fall asleep quickly and get as much sleep as you can is having a soothing bedtime routine. It’s important to put yourself in a calm headspace so that you can fall asleep easily. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends taking a hot bath, avoiding large meals or electronics, and keeping your bedroom cool

Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine close to bedtime.

Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine have all been linked to significant decreases in sleep duration and/or sleep quality, especially when used right before bed. Studies show that exposure to nicotine is associated with more problems falling and staying asleep, lower sleep satisfaction and increased sleep problems. Caffeine can be a major problem as well. One study found that even when caffeine is used 6 hours before bed, it still has disruptive effects on sleep. Keeping caffeine intake limited to the morning hours is the best way to ensure it doesn’t interfere with your rest.

Finally, alcohol can also present a problem. Some people find that alcohol actually helps them fall asleep easier, but the research shows that it isn’t good for you once you’re asleep. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol is associated with more sleep disturbances and irregular sleep patterns which lead to poor sleep quality and daytime sleepiness.

Create an environment that promotes sleep.

Sleep hygiene isn’t all about changing your habits, it’s also about changing your environment. If your environment is too loud, too bright or too hot, it will be that much harder to fall asleep. Try using blackout curtains to keep your bedroom dark and reduce noise as much as possible. If you live in a busy city or have loud neighbors, you can also try a white noise machine. These machines drown out sudden noises, like doors slamming or horns honking, with constant, high-frequency sound. Studies show that in noisy environments, they can help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

Another way to improve your sleep environment is with lavender. According to a study investigating the relationship between lavender and the nervous system, lavender administered orally or through aromatherapy helped patients fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer and feel more well-rested upon waking. One more part of your sleep environment you should consider is your mattress. If you’re sleeping on an old, sagging mattress, your sleep is definitely going to suffer. No one type of mattress or mattress firmness is linked to better sleep, it’s just important that your mattress is comfortable for you. Check out these comfortable, affordable mattresses so you can improve your sleep environment without stressing over the finances.

Exercise 

One of the most popular reasons for working out is weight loss, but in reality, there are so many other reasons to exercise regularly. Sleep is a big one. Studies show that people who engage in moderate exercise on a regular basis are more alert during the day and sleep better at night. But there are a few recommendations you should follow to get the most out of your workout.

Adding exercise to your daily routine can help you get better sleep, as long as you don’t work out too late in the day. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, it’s best to get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, but to get that exercise no later than 3 hours before bedtime. If you aren’t sure you’re ready for 30 minutes every day, that’s okay. Some exercise is better than no exercise, and you can work your way up to a longer routine over time.

Exercise can promote better sleep, which in turn can reduce stress, but exercise actually has a direct effect on stress levels as well. Multiple studies show that regular exercise improves emotional resilience, increases ability to choose effective coping strategies for stress, and reduces the effects of chronic stress. No matter what kind of stress you’re facing, exercise is an excellent way to cope with it.

Not sure where to start? No need to stress, there are lots of exercise options for all kinds of people. If you’re looking for something simple to get you started, try walking around the block a few times a day. Even 10 minutes of exercise can make a difference. Swimming is a great option for anyone with joint or back pain because it allows you to work out without putting extra pressure on your back or joints. If you prefer exercising from the comfort of your home, there are plenty of exercise routines available through apps or YouTube videos.

Relaxation Techniques

So far, we’ve focused largely on how you can get better sleep in order to reduce stress, but now we want to look at the reverse. How can you relax in order to get better sleep? After all, according to Kali Patrick, sleep wellness coach, “When we live the day in constant high gear, it’s highly unlikely that a bedtime routine will be enough.” If we want our sleep hygiene practices to work, we need to focus on relaxation throughout the day too. Here are four relaxation techniques that have been proven to reduce stress.

Acupuncture/Acupressure:

One way to relieve stress is through acupuncture or acupressure. These practices are both part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and they are meant to help keep energy (called “qi”) moving through the body by stimulating acupoints. Acupuncture does this by inserting thin, sterile needles into the acupoints, while acupressure does so with applied pressure (but no needles). Stagnant energy can cause all kinds of problems, from digestive trouble to migraines or stress.

Western medicine has been slow to accept the viability of acupuncture and acupressure as real, effective treatments, but the research shows that it is safe and effective. Studies have found that acupuncture can help relieve stress over time and reduce depressive symptoms caused by chronic stress. Acupressure has been found to work in much the same way, and with some training, you can even perform it yourself.

Breathing Exercises:

If you’re looking for something a little simpler that you can do throughout the day, one of the best options is breathing exercises. These can be done any time, anywhere, and you can do them discreetly. If you’re at work and you’re starting to panic about your big presentation, you can do a few breathing exercises to calm down. Dr. Ghassan Kanj, MD, recommends the 4-7-8 method. He says, “You inhale through the nose for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds and exhale through mouth for 8 seconds.” This engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of lowering the heart rate and blood pressure and generally calming down.

Meditation:

Meditation is all about mindfulness. It’s about bringing your attention to the present moment and allowing your thoughts and feelings to flow around you as you remain grounded. This practice has been proven to reduce stress. A study performed in 2014 reviewed the literature on stress and meditation in healthy individuals and found that meditation encouraged a significant reduction in stress. There are countless ways to meditate, but if you’re new to meditation, you might want to try guided meditations. These are meditations where someone talks you through the experience, reminds you not to fixate on any one particular thought and in some cases, encourages you to reflect on a specific topic. If you’re looking for more guidance, you can find all kinds of meditation help through apps and YouTube.

Yoga:

Yoga actually combines several of the practices we’ve already discussed, including meditation and exercise. As a result, it can have a positive effect on both stress and sleep, making it a great tool for improving your sleep-stress cycle. Yoga combines physical health and mental health through poses, movements and positions that increase flexibility, strength and mindfulness, all at the same time. Significant research has been conducted to determine if yoga can really affect stress, and the results are clear: Yoga is a very effective stress reliever. Literature reviews of the research demonstrate that yoga helps reduce stress and according to the National Institutes of Health, it also supports better sleep

What Creates Stress?

To a certain extent, stress is normal. Everyone experiences stress throughout their lifetime, and in some cases, it can even be beneficial. However, if we don’t cope well with stress, or if we experience chronic stress, it can have negative effects on our physical and mental health. We don’t say this to stress you out further, but rather because the first step to stress relief is understanding how stress works.

Causes of Stress

Almost anything can cause stress because stress varies based on environment, context and personality. However, there are some areas of life that are very common sources of stress, like work, family, friends, identity and money.

In most cases, these areas can also be sources of joy. Sometimes all it takes to reduce stress is to shift your perspective. But in many cases, perspective cannot change the situation. Being unable to afford rent or groceries is inherently stressful, experiencing discrimination based on your skin color, sexuality or disability is inherently stressful, and working in a toxic environment is inherently stressful.

We say this not to make you feel hopeless, but to validate your experience. It’s okay to feel stressed. For many of us, it makes sense to feel stressed. One of the only things we can consistently control is how we feel about our stress. Feeling ashamed of our stress will only add to it. So instead, let’s understand the symptoms of stress and use all the relaxation tools we can to reduce our frustrating, but logical, stress levels.

Symptoms of Stress

Stress appears in our lives in both physical and emotional symptoms. That’s because stress is caused by the stimulation of our sympathetic nervous system, which increases heart rate and breathing and draws energy away from normal mental functioning. Basically, when we feel stressed, our bodies and minds think we are in a survival situation and non-survival activities aren’t prioritized. This can cause many physical and emotional symptoms, including:

Physical symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Soreness
  • Restlessness
  • Shaking, trembling, or twitching muscles
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Upset stomach
  • Clenched jaw and/or teeth grinding

Emotional symptoms:

  • Being easily agitated/moody/angry
  • Feeling overwhelmed/out-of-control
  • Difficulty relaxing/mind racing
  • Low self-esteem/feeling lonely
  • Avoiding others

Final Thoughts

Stress and sleep deprivation aren’t an enjoyable part of life, but they are a part of life. What causes someone to stress out or lose sleep differs from person to person, and that means the solutions are going to be different too. There’s no “one size fits all” solution, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions. Acupuncture, better sleep hygiene, exercise, meditation, all of these things can help create positive change in your sleep-stress cycle. If you find your stress or insomnia getting worse, you should reach out to your doctor and explain your symptoms. They may be able to offer other solutions that will work better for you.


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