You’re probably already aware that a strong link exists between stress and sleep.
But you may not be aware of just how strong it is and the underlying mechanisms at play.
So today we’re going to explore the link between stress and sleep.
We’ll look at how stress can cause poor sleep and how poor sleep can increase stress, further causing sleep disruptions.
You’ll also learn how to break the cycle and reduce the stress in your life.
The Stress Response
The Stress Response is a biological and psychological response experienced on encountering a threat that we feel we do not have the resources to deal with.
The response is initiated by the hypothalamus in the brain and prepares your body for ‘fight or flight’.
This is an evolutionary system built for survival.
We see a lion, our body reacts and makes the changes needed to help us run faster, become more alert etc.
Some of the changes your body will experience as part of this Stress Response include:
- A release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
- An increase in your heart rate so more blood can become available for use.
- An increase in your breathing so more oxygen is available for use.
- An increase in brain wave activity enabling you to be more alert and think/react faster.
- A decrease in digestive activity as blood flow is prioritized to more essential areas for short term activity.
- An increase in the availability of blood sugar for use in energy production.
- An increase in perspiration to keep the body cool.
Although the Stress Response is still important for us today, the problem lies in what our brain perceives as stress.
Your brain doesn’t differentiate between being chased by a lion and being under pressure at work.
Both are stressors that have the potential to trigger the Stress Response.
The problem for many people then becomes the ever increasing number of perceived ‘stressors’ experienced on a daily basis.
Our ancestors might have been unlucky enough to be in stressful situations a few times a week.
Modern man on the other hand can potentially be experiencing ‘stress’ from the moment he wakes until he goes to bed at night.
For many of us, the Stress Response occurs so often in daily life that it has become automatic and unconscious.
And it’ll come as no surprise to hear that an overactive Stress Response system is bad for your sleep.
Stress As An Initial Trigger For Insomnia
One of the most common ways for poor sleep to be caused initially is as a result of a particularly stressful event or incident in your life.
Examples can include death in the family, injury or trauma, changes in family or work situations etc.
But stress in life doesn’t always have to be caused by major life events.
It can also be caused by the daily act of living – dealing with work issues, family issues and so on.
And it’s these smaller, ongoing stresses that in many ways are more harmful to your long term ability to sleep.
You see no matter how big or small the stressful incident, it has an ability to impact on your sleep in the short term.
And if your sleep remains disrupted after the stressful event has been and gone, then that short period of stress can potentially develop into a case of acute or chronic insomnia.
Tired & Wired
One of the most common experiences we hear from clients with sleep issues is related to an inability to stay asleep through the night.
You might have even experienced this for yourself?
You’ll have no trouble falling asleep…
But then after about 3 hours you’ll wake up and struggle to get back to sleep for the rest of the night.
So what’s going on here?
That three hour mark for waking up seems to be experienced by an above average number of people.
One of the possible mechanisms at play which results in these awakenings has to do with elevated stress levels.
As we’ve mentioned before, Sleep Pressure builds as levels of adenosine in the brain build.
When you go to sleep, the first two Sleep Cycles (roughly 180 minutes) are largely spent in Slow Wave Sleep.
And SWS is where much of the hard work is done in clearing out that adenosine.
The problem arises when the stresses of your job, and your life in general are so great that your adrenal glands are still active and producing cortisol while you’re trying to sleep.
Cortisol is a hormone that promotes wakefulness and alertness. It’s about as close to a ‘sleep enemy’ as you can get within your body.
So going back to our example above where you come out of your sleep after just 3 hours…
Initially the buildup up adenosine is so great that the strength of your Sleep Pressure is enough to overpower the alerting effects of cortisol.
So you fall asleep.
But as you sleep, adenosine levels begin to fall as does your Sleep Pressure.
Eventually there comes a point where the cortisol in the body causes you to wake from your sleep and you then struggle to get back to sleep.
Creating A Wind Down Routine
This process explains why it’s so important for you to learn how to effectively Wind Down at the end of the day.
You see sleep isn’t just something that happens…or at least good quality sleep isn’t.
It’s gradual process that happens as various systems within the brain and the body start shutting down for the day allowing other processes to take over so that sleep can occur
One of the goals of the Wind Down process is to ‘switch off’ your adrenals and halt the production of cortisol which in turn allows for the production of melatonin to begin.
If you aren’t able to effectively do this, your quality of sleep will never be as great as it could be.
The Relaxation Response
If stress is playing a part in your poor sleep, then learning to relax and manage your stress is going to be crucial.
And it’s not just stress in the hours before bed.
Studies have shown that elevated stress through the middle of the day can actually result in elevated levels of stress hormones at night.
So it’s possible to get home from a tough day at work and be suffering a ‘stress hangover’ from something that happened many hours ago.
In order to minimize those impacts you’re going to need to learn a technique that works for you in bringing about the Relaxation Response.
The good news is that there are multiple options for you to test and choose from.
We initially suggest Box Breathing as a simple place to start. But the one that works best will vary from person to person, so some experimentation on your part will be needed.
The Relaxation Response & Sleep
Being able to actively engage your Relaxation Response can help with your sleep in a number of different ways.
- Practicing relaxation techniques through the day can counter any stress experienced and reduce levels of stress hormones at night.
- Using those same techniques at night before bed helps relax the body and prepare it to enter sleep.
- Using relaxation techniques at night has also been shown to be a powerful way to transition the brain wave pattern into an alpha state which is the same brain wave pattern experienced in Stage 1 sleep. This helps ease the transition from wake to sleep
Other Examples Of Stress Reduction Techniques
If you don’t find Box Breathing useful, or you simply want to tap into other stress reduction techniques then you can use the list below as a starting point for the option available to you.
- Progressive muscle relaxation.
- Abdominal breathing.
- 4-7-8 breathing.
- Foam rolling.
- Guided imagery.
- Relaxation music/sounds
Become the master of just one or two relaxation techniques and you’ll have the ability to lower your stress levels at will, and keep them from harming your sleep.