Sleep is essential for our health and wellbeing. It allows the body to rest and recharge, and it is vital for brain function, metabolism, immune health, and more. However, many people struggle to get enough high-quality sleep. One of the biggest contributors to poor sleep is stress.
Stress causes a variety of changes in the body that can make it very difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. Understanding exactly why and how stress ruins sleep can help motivate us to find ways to manage stress better and improve sleep.
How Stress Affects Sleep
To understand why stress and sleep are so interconnected, it helps to first understand the stages of sleep. There are two primary phases of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM. Non-REM sleep progresses through three stages: N1, N2, and N3. N3 is the deep restorative sleep needed to recharge the body. REM sleep is when dreaming occurs.
During times of high stress, three key things happen in the body that disrupt normal sleep:
Increased cortisol. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone. It triggers the “fight or flight” response when we face stressors and dangers. Cortisol levels typically dip at night, allowing melatonin to rise and induce sleep. But when we’re stressed, cortisol remains elevated – making it hard to fall and stay asleep.
Hyperarousal. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing a hyperaroused state. The mind races and body remains tense, making it difficult to calm down and drift off to sleep. This hyperactivity continues through the night, disrupting sleep cycles.
Disrupted circadian rhythms. Stress hormones like cortisol can throw off the body’s natural circadian pacemaker – the internal clock that regulates sleep/wake cycles. This makes it harder to fall asleep on a regular sleep schedule.
Of these issues, high nighttime cortisol levels are arguably the biggest driver of stress-induced insomnia. Cortisol has alerting effects, so elevated bedtime cortisol makes falling asleep extremely difficult.
Once asleep, cortisol continues to wreck havoc. During normal sleep, cortisol levels drop up to 75% below daytime values. But cortisol declines much less when sleep suffers frequent disruptions, which commonly happens under stress. This causes sleep to feel unrefreshing.
Stress also suppresses REM sleep. Normally, REM comprises 20-25% of sleep time in adults. When stressed, people spend less time in REM, which is thought to be restorative for the brain and emotional health. Lack of REM sleep leads to poor concentration, learning, and memory issues.
Other Effects of Stress on Sleep
Beyond the direct physiological disruptions, stress also contributes to insomnia in other ways:
- Racing thoughts at bedtime. When preoccupied by stressful events, the mind replays worries and can’t calm down for sleep. This mental hyperactivity gets in the way of rest.
- Bedtime anxiety. Many people feel anxiety around sleep when stressed – worrying about not sleeping, consequences of insomnia, or frustration about being unable to control racing thoughts. This only worsens insomnia.
- Unhealthy coping habits. Many people turn to coping mechanisms that interfere with sleep, like consuming alcohol close to bedtime, smoking, or eating sugary and fatty comfort foods that disrupt sleep cycles.
- Poor sleep habits. Stress and exhaustion sometimes lead people to nap excessively during the day or go to bed too early, throwing off the body’s sleep-wake rhythm.
- Disruption of routine. Major life stressors – like changes in work, relationships, or health – can sometimes upend usual schedules and sleep routines. This adjustment period can interfere with high-quality sleep.
Restoring Healthy Sleep
Because stress has such profound effects on sleep, finding effective ways to manage stress is critical for anyone suffering from insomnia. Key strategies include:
- Relaxation practices. Activities like yoga, deep breathing, meditation, massage therapy and mindfulness help activate the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body and mind before bedtime. This allows sleep-inducing hormones like melatonin to increase.
- Cognitive restructuring. Reframing anxious thought patterns – like ruminating on worst case scenarios – can help reduce stress and racing thoughts at night. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps with this.
- Strong sleep hygiene. Having a consistent relaxing bedtime routine, limiting blue light exposure at night, and optimizing the sleep environment can help buffer the effects of stress.
- Healthy stress outlets. Engaging in moderate exercise helps burn off cortisol during the day and improves sleep. Expressive activities like journaling help process stressful thoughts rather than internalizing them.
- Professional support. For severe insomnia related to trauma or serious life stressors, working with a psychologist or counselor can help develop tools to improve resilience and sleep. Medications may also help in the short term in some cases.
The toll of stress on sleep, health, and quality of life is profound. But by understanding exactly how stress disrupts sleep – and adopting proven techniques to manage it – we can greatly improve our chances of restful nights and bouncing back from challenges. With some focused effort, a good night’s sleep is within reach, even during stressful times.