How Does Stress Affect Sleep

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Stress is a physical and emotional reaction (1) to life’s challenges. Feeling stressed from time to time is normal and, in the right amount, stress can be helpful (2). For example, if we’re in danger or need an extra push of motivation, stress can activate the body and prepare us for action when it’s most needed (3).

Physical and emotional stress can be acute or chronic. Acute stress describes short-term stress (4) that everyone experiences now and then. Acute stress can help us respond quickly to dangerous situations. Chronic stress lasts a long time and becomes harmful when the body acts as if it’s constantly in danger (5). Unless a person finds ways to manage chronic stress, it can contribute to a multitude of health problems.

Chronic stress can increase the risk of health conditions, including digestive issues, headaches, stress induced asthma attacks, and mood disorders like depression and anxiety. Stress can also make it harder to sleep and increase the risk of sleep disorders (6).

How Stress Affects the Body

The body’s response to stress is an important survival mechanism (7). When faced with a dangerous or stressful situation, the brain begins a series of processes that help us respond to a threat. Although the stress response is useful, when it continues for an extended period of time, the stress can negatively impact our bodies. Here are some effects of stress on the body (8) and ways in which chronic stress can lead to health problems:

  • Hormones: When faced with a threat, the body increases production of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, that trigger other physical changes and put the body into a state of fight-or-flight. In chronic stress, these hormones can be triggered when they’re not needed.
  • Muscles: In response to stress, muscles throughout the body reflexively tense up. If stress isn’t reduced, chronic muscle tension can lead to painful conditions like headaches and back pain.
  • Breathing: Stress can make breathing more short and rapid. For people with pre-existing breathing conditions, such as COPD and asthma, the body’s stress response can trigger their symptoms.
  • Blood Pressure: Stress hormones cause certain blood vessels to dilate and can also cause blood pressure to increase. Ongoing stress can lead to inflammation and increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke.

Traumatic stress is a type of chronic stress. Traumatic stress may occur when a person is exposed to a traumatic event. While most people will recover from the effects of trauma in time (9), sometimes the body’s stress response lasts longer than normal and begins to interfere with other parts of a person’s life. If left untreated, traumatic stress can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Sleep and Stress

Stress and sleep have a two-way relationship (10). Stress can lead to sleep loss and, conversely, loss of sleep can increase stress. While the links between stress and sleep are complex, research has demonstrated several effects of stress on sleep.

  • Trouble Falling Asleep: Stress often increases how long it takes to fall asleep (11). People with higher levels of stress and more chronic stress are more likely to experience insomnia (12), a common sleep disorder (13). Chronic insomnia can develop in response to prolonged stress (14).
  • Altered Sleep Architecture: Sleep architecture describes the structure of sleep (15). While researchers are still learning about the effects of stress on sleep architecture, it appears that stress may reduce a type of sleep called slow-wave sleep (16). Slow wave sleep is important for maintaining physical and mental health. Stress may also affect rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, although research has shown that REM sleep may increase or decrease during times of stress (17).
  • Nighttime Awakening: Feeling stressed can cause people to wake up more often during the night (18).
  • Stress Dreams: Stressful events can affect our dreams. Research suggests that stress can increase the frequency and severity of nightmares.

Insomnia isn’t the only sleep disorder linked to stress. Sleep bruxism is a sleep disorder involving nighttime teeth clenching and grinding (19). Chronic stress and muscle tension can increase the risk of sleep bruxism (20). Fortunately, using healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress may reduce nighttime teeth grinding.

Tips for Reducing Stress at Bedtime

Occasional stress at bedtime is inevitable. Having a plan for coping with stress can help you prevent stress from interfering with your sleep. Here are tips for learning to recognize the signs of stress and combating stress at bedtime:

  • Pay Attention To Stress: Before you can learn how to sleep when stressed and anxious, the first step is to recognize the signs of stress (21). Learn how stress shows up in your life, whether it’s sleeping issues, changes in relationships, or changes in your thought patterns. Once you can recognize when your body is under stress, you can make a plan for how to respond to that stress.
  • Improve Daytime Habits: What we do during the day significantly impacts our stress levels. Eating a healthy diet (22), exercising for 30 minutes each day (23), and stopping caffeine intake six hours before bed (24) can help reduce stress when bedtime rolls around.
  • Create a Nightly Routine: Schedule time each night to destress before bedtime. Turn off the TV, silence your cell phone, and find a relaxing activity to calm your mind and body before bed.
  • Learn Some Relaxation Techniques: Certain activities can trigger the body’s relaxation response (25), lowering heart rate, reducing blood pressure, and relaxing the body. Learning deep breathing techniques, meditation, progressive relaxation, or yoga can help you activate the relaxation response and learn to relax when you need it.
  • Get Support: You don’t have to face stress alone. If you’ve tried to manage stress on your own and it’s still interfering with your sleep, call a healthcare professional. Doctors, sleep specialists, and mental health professionals can all be helpful resources to help cope with stress.

Although stress can certainly interfere with getting a good night’s sleep, it doesn’t have to take control of your life. Understanding the body’s stress response and making a plan for managing stress can help you regain control and improve your rest.

References

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  21. 21. Accessed on March 24, 2021.https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml
  22. 22. Accessed on March 24, 2021.https://health.gov/myhealthfinder/topics/health-conditions/heart-health/manage-stress
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