The link between stress and sleep is a big one. So big, in fact, that things can very quickly go downhill when stress starts to affect your sleep. The reason for this unhealthy relationship is a double-whammy. On one hand, too much stress triggers hormones such as cortisol that make you super tired all the time. On the other hand, stress also triggers overthinking, making it harder to get to sleep. Tired + unable to sleep = recipe for disaster.
How deep does this connection go, really, and how can you find some sort of balance to ensure you get a good night’s sleep? Let’s take a look.
What’s the Connection Between Sleep and Stress?
Sleep and stress both come into play when you are dealing with anxiety, chronic stress, a generally difficult time, burnout, overwhelm, depression, or other issues that cause your stress levels to hit the roof. Chances are very high that you have seen how much one affects the other. You may find yourself constantly exhausted with anxiety threatening to take over. You may not be aware that your sleep is being disrupted.
To understand the way that stress affects your sleeping patterns, it helps to understand the cycles of sleep we go through every night.
There are two sleep types: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. REM sleep happens about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. This stage is where you dream. Your heart rate and breathing rate increase and your eye movements are rapid. Non-REM sleep has the biggest impact on your well-being if it is disrupted. There are three stages: the change from awake to sleep, light sleep before you enter deep sleep, and deep sleep needed to feel refreshed when you wake up in the morning.
You go through several sleep cycles on any given night. When you battle to transition from waking to sleeping, it will take longer and become harder to enter light sleep. You will then find it much harder to get the deep sleep your body and brain needs to function at your best. This is where things start to go downhill…
- You have an increased risk of high blood pressure
- You have an increased chance of weakened immune system
- You have problems with memory and concentration
- You have an increased chance of weight gain
- You have an increased risk of heart problems
These are just the physical risks. From a mental health and stress point of view, poor sleep can be equally dangerous. Lack of sleep has a big impact on mood, causing you to be more anxious, more emotional and quicker to anger. Over time, bad sleep can trigger or amplify depression and other mood disorders, causing an ongoing cycle that puts you in serious risk.
How Can You Improve Sleep?
There are a few ways that you can improve your sleep to get more than five hours a day and hopefully something closer to eight hours. Ultimately, it comes down to treating the symptom (focusing on improving the sleep itself) and treating the cause (focusing on improving your stress levels as well). Some of the ways that you can achieve both include:
- Have a sleep routine in place. This can include anything that helps you relax. For my bedtime routine, I like to do stretching before bed, followed by usual bathroom routine and then some breathing meditation in bed. I’ve also done facial steams to help my sinuses clear, music meditation and various other rituals that help me unwind.
- Train your brain. You may not be able to control your brain and force it to stop thinking. Having a set sleep habit will help your brain prepare for bedtime, however. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time or something close to the same time. When you are getting three hours one night and ten hours the next, it will be very hard for your brain to develop its own natural rhythms.
- Move that body. Even a little bit of exercise in the day can help you prepare for sleep. You don’t have to go flat out or run yourself down by doing something you don’t enjoy. Try a walk in the late afternoon or early evening or do some gentle restorative yoga before bed to get your body feeling more relaxed.
- Learn to let thoughts go. I have an incredibly over-active mind and tend to do my best thinking when I have done my meditation and need to prepare for sleep. Obviously, this is not great when it comes to relaxation. Something that helps is letting my brain do its thing without stopping to focus on any thought that comes along. Sometimes I visualise a butterfly floating along through a field, landing on flowers and then moving onwards. Other times I simply lie back and pretend I’m watching a movie. Actively trying to stop thinking never works. Instead, just let those thoughts go. You have time to think them out properly tomorrow.
- Manage your stress levels. This one is without a doubt the most important one of all. A little stress is not the worst thing. The problem is that we let little stress grow until it becomes far harder to manage. Women are far more prone to stress and we are also very good at tucking things away until we absolutely have to take time to do something for ourselves. Speak to your therapist. Talk to your doctor about medication. Look at any other strategies that can help.
The good news is that you can improve your stress and sleep levels. It takes a bit of effort and it definitely requires getting a routine into place. Just like anything else, habit makes it easier. Once you start sleeping better, everything will start to seem easier to manage. Likewise, once you get your stress levels managed, sleep and everything else will be easier, too. Love yourself enough to invest in sleep AND stress and you will see the rewards.