The Closely-Linked Relationship Between Sleep and Stress

What Is The Relationship Between Sleep and Stress?

Sad woman awake in bed
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Are you getting enough sleep? Chances are, the answer to this question is 'no'. And if you find that you're not getting enough sleep, you're not alone. In a national sleep survey, 40% of respondents say they aren't getting the recommended amount of sleep. According to a sleep survey conducted on this site (among a sample of, presumably, those who are stressed), out of over 10,000 respondents, about 3 out of 4 are getting fewer than the recommended 8 hours per night. Even more disconcerting, 1 in 4 are getting 5 hours or less—a level that can put them at greater risk of health problems and car accidents. Why the problems with sleep?

Your Stress Response and Sleep

When you experience a perceived threat (physical or psychological, real or imagined), your body's stress response is triggered, creating a cascade of physical changes including quickened, shallow breathing; the release of adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemicals that provide a burst of energy; and other changes that allow you to fight or run from danger. Since fighting and running are both inappropriate responses to many of the stressors we face in modern life (traffic jams, difficult co-workers, relationship conflicts, etc.), the fight-or-flight response isn't necessarily the best response to today's demands, but it becomes triggered nonetheless—several times per day in many cases. When this stress response becomes triggered and isn't resolved through relaxation, you may end up with a situation of chronic stress, where your body remains in a continually stressed state, often without your even realizing it. As you can imagine, this can make sleep difficult to come by, and less restful when it finally does come.

Sleep and Rumination

Do you ever 'lose sleep over' something that stresses you? Most of us have had the experience of losing sleep over a stressful situation at least once or twice. Many people find that sleep is either difficult to come by because they are gripped by rumination, or they even find themselves waking up in the night between sleep cycles, their stress response triggered by rumination that's surfaced, and unable to get back to sleep quickly.

Sleep and Busy People

Obviously, people who are really busy may have trouble getting enough sleep because they don't devote enough time to the activity. (If you don't set aside at least 8 hours for sleep, you can't be surprised when you consistently get fewer than 8 hours!) Additionally, being too busy, again, can trigger that stress response, and we know what that can lead to!

Other Sleep Obstacles

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 have an effect on sleep. Caffeine, alcohol and other things we consume can affect sleep as well. Even certain diseases and disorders can make sleep difficult (like disorders that bring chronic pain, which certainly can interfere with sleep!). If you try the stress management-related suggestions below and find that your sleep has not improved, you should consult your doctor to see if one of these other causes could be affecting your sleep.

Stress Management Sleep Strategies

If your sleep problems are due primarily to stress or the effects of stress, sleep should naturally come easier with certain stress management techniques. Before-sleep meditation, for example, can relax the body, turn off the stress response, and bring sleep more easily. (For more information, see this article on how to meditate.) Paring down a busy schedule can also not only relieve stress (which can lower stress hormones) but can free up more time for sleep. Even simple breathing exercises can reduce stress and tension in the body, lower stress hormone levels, and help sleep come more easily. (See this on stress relief breathing.) See this article for a more complete listing of stress management sleep strategies, and read more about the benefits of a good night's sleep.

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