Stress is an unavoidable part of life. We all experience varying levels of stress on a regular basis, from daily hassles like traffic jams and arguments to major life events like changing jobs or losing a loved one. While a small amount of stress can actually be beneficial by motivating us into action, prolonged and intense stress takes a real toll on both physical and mental health. When we’re under stress, our bodies produce extra stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. While these hormones help us power through acute stressors in the short-term, over time they disrupt nearly every system in the body. This puts us at higher risk for health problems like heart disease, diabetes, depression and more.
Sleep is one of the first things affected by stress. When we’re anxious, it becomes very difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. Stress and worry activate the sympathetic nervous system, making us feel “wired” and alert. Continued release of cortisol further disrupts the natural sleep-wake cycle. Tossing and turning through the night leaves us groggy and irritable the next day. But skimping on sleep only exacerbates the negative impacts of stress. It’s crucial to prioritize sleep when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Here’s why:
Sleep Reduces Stress Hormones
Getting sufficient sleep helps restore hormonal balance and reverse the effects of stress on the body. During sleep, cortisol levels naturally decrease while other hormones like melatonin and human growth hormone (HGH) increase. HGH plays an important role in tissue repair and muscle growth. Sleep is also thought to improve the function of the glymphatic system, which clears waste from the brain. With quality sleep, your body has the time it needs to lower stress hormone levels, repair cell damage, regulate appetite and more.
Sleep Supports Immune Function
Your immune system works hard to fend off pathogens and prevent disease. But without enough sleep, your immune system suffers. Research shows that sleeping less than 7 hours per night increases risk of developing illness after being exposed to a virus. Lack of sleep disrupts the normal production of white blood cells, antibodies, and cytokines that target infection. Bolstering immune function is therefore key when facing stressful situations. Getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night helps keep your immune system strong, making you better equipped to fight off viruses and bacteria.
Sleep Enhances Cognitive Abilities
Sleep is vital for learning and memory consolidation. During sleep, the brain consolidates and processes new information absorbed throughout the day. This neural activity strengthens memory traces and facilitates creative problem-solving. Sleep also supports cognitive abilities like attention, focus, and quick thinking. When sleep deprived, it’s much harder to retain information, stay organized, and regulate emotions. Impaired cognition under stress can reduce productivity and performance. Protecting sleep ensures you can think clearly, make sound decisions and effectively manage challenges life throws your way.
Sleep Improves Emotional Resilience
Stress often goes hand-in-hand with negative thought patterns and emotions like anxiety, sadness, anger and fear. Lack of sleep tends to exacerbate these effects. With inadequate rest, it’s harder to see the positive, keep things in perspective and bounce back from difficulties. On the other hand, sufficient sleep helps regulate emotional reactivity and fortifies inner resilience. Well-rested people are better able to handle stressful events and maintain an optimistic outlook even when times get tough. Think of quality sleep as essential “mood medicine” when facing periods of high stress.
The Link Between Sleep and Burnout
Burnout is a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. It’s characterized by depleted energy, cynicism, decreased motivation and problems with concentration and memory. Burnout can result from stressful work conditions, family demands or health issues. It develops gradually over time and is influenced by many factors, including poor sleep habits. Insufficient sleep is both a contributor to and consequence of burnout. Prioritizing rest when feeling stressed and overwhelmed is key to preventing burnout. Longer sleep duration is associated with reduced burnout symptoms among working adults. So if you’re dragging through the day, don’t overlook the power of extra sleep.
Tips for Better Sleep When Stressed
Getting adequate good quality sleep on a regular basis provides the best protection against stress. Here are some tips forrestoring healthy sleep cycles during stressful times:
-Evaluate your bedroom for good sleep hygiene. Keep it cool, dark and free of electronic devices. Consider blackout curtains and a white noise machine.
-Establish a relaxing pre-bed routine, like a warm bath, light reading or gentle yoga. Light from electronics can delay melatonin release.
-Limit caffeine, alcohol and heavy meals close to bedtime. Caffeine can remain in your system for 8+ hours.
-Write down thoughts and worries earlier in the day. Purge your mind of distractions well before lying down.
-Practice deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or meditation before bed. These tools calm the nervous system.
-Keep a worry journal by your bed for jotting down middle-of-the-night concerns. This can clear your mind for sleep.
-If you don’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed temporarily until you feel sleepier.
-Talk to your doctor if insomnia persists for more than 2-3 weeks. They can assess your sleep issues.
-Consider cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) if anxious thoughts are severely impacting sleep.
Don’t underestimate sleep’s ability to alleviate stress, improve thinking, enhance immunity and restore well-being. Prioritizing rest won’t make stressful problems disappear, but it will strengthen resilience and equip you to better handle challenges. By taking steps to improve your sleep now, you’ll feel calmer and better prepared to navigate stressful times. Your mind and body will thank you.