The Relationship Between Sleep and Stress
By Elizabeth Scott, MS
If you find that you are stressed and not getting enough sleep, you’re not alone. In a national sleep survey, 40 percent of respondents said they aren’t getting the recommended amount of rest. Many of the stressors we face in modern life, such as traffic jams, difficult co-workers, or relationship conflicts, can trigger a fight-or-flight response, and prolonged exposure to this stress without relaxation can result in shorter sleep duration and poorer quality sleep. To improve sleep quality and cope with chronic stress, some strategies are more effective than others.
How Chronic Stress Affects Sleep
When you experience a perceived threat (physical or psychological, real or imagined), your body’s hormonal stress response gets triggered, creating a cascade of physical changes that lead to the release of glucocorticoids like cortisol by the endocrine system. The release of cortisol and other stress hormones creates a burst of energy that allows you to fight or run from a real and present danger.
A healthy stress response involves a quick cortisol spike followed by a rapid decrease once the stressful event has passed. This endocrine system response is controlled by negative feedback loops mediated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) access in the central nervous system.
What’s important to know in this context is that the HPA access also plays an important role in modulating the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. Prolonged stress levels have been correlated with HPA access hyperactivity, decreased sleep duration, as well as reduced REM sleep and delta power, leading to poorer quality sleep, impaired memory, poorer mood regulation, which can, in turn, lead to more stress.
Stress Management Sleep Strategies
If your sleep problems are being compounded by the effects of stress, sleep may come easier with the implementation of healthy stress management techniques before bed. Coping with stress takes many forms, and can involve emotional engagement or emotional disengagement.
Notably, one study found that strategies that reduce emotional avoidance and enhance emotional awareness are helpful for reducing the impact of stress on sleep onset latency, while strategies that increase avoidance, such as alcohol use, can lead to longer sleep delays.
Healthy coping strategies that reduce emotional avoidance include meditation and simple breathing exercises, which can reduce stress and tension in the body, lower stress hormone levels, and help sleep come more easily.
Problem-solving can also be a way to reduce stress, but it can be stimulating and should be done earlier in the day rather than before bed.
It is important to leave enough time for stress management and also enough time for sleep itself. Educate yourself about additional stress management sleep strategies and read more about the benefits of a good night’s sleep to inspire you to figure out a plan to create space in your busy life to reduce your stress before bed.
A Word From Verywell
Not all sleep problems are due directly or entirely to stress. Certain hormonal changes that come with menopause or even natural aging can alter sleep patterns. Certain medications can also have an effect on sleep, as can caffeine, alcohol, and other things you consume. If you are feeling that you are managing your stress well and find that your sleep has not improved, you should consult your doctor to see if one of these other causes could be affecting you or if you might have a sleep disorder.