Life is stressful. From daily stressors like bills, work, and relationships, to the bigger ones like losing a job, moving to a new house, or coping with an illness can all affect the way your body works. Stress often influences sleep which has a direct impact on how we live our lives. And not getting enough sleep can even make your stress worse.
What’s Keeping You Awake?
If you’re stressed out, you might not be able to fall into a deep sleep, the period of sleep when the body repairs and restores itself. Feeling anxious also makes you come in and out of sleep throughout the entire night. If you’re under stress, you might sleep less overall and have a lower sleep efficiency.
A number of physiological changes occur within this sleep-stress relationship. The presence of stress raises cortisol levels, a hormone that stimulates alertness and vigilance, raising heart rate and blood pressure. Typically, your cortisol levels fall in the evening hours, as one element of the body’s natural preparation for sleep. High cortisol levels at night interfere with the release of melatonin, a hormone that is essential for the regulation of sleep-wake cycles. Poor sleep itself can further influence your cortisol, causing levels to rise at times when they would otherwise be low.
Stress also disrupts your sleep cycles. Stress has been shown to decrease time spent in light and deep sleep, and increase time spent in REM sleep. REM is an important sleep stage for restoring mental function, a phase when the brain processes emotions and memories. These changes to your normal sleep architecture cause disruptions to the normal patterns of brain waves that occur during REM and the other stages of sleep. Stress can cause the brain waves related to concentration, creativity, and dreaming to change. Too much time in REM sleep can also cause daytime sleepiness and fatigue, which can further disrupt normal sleep cycles and mood.
Can Sleep Take Away Your Stress?
Sleep is a powerful stress reducer. Following a regular sleep routine calms and restores the body, improves concentration, regulates mood, and sharpens judgment and decision-making. You are a better problem solver and are better able to cope with stress when you’re well-rested. Lack of sleep, on the other hand, reduces your energy and diminishes mental clarity.
You might find that you can’t concentrate as easily without sleep. Research demonstrates that lack of sleep renders you more emotionally reactive, more impulsive, and more sensitive to negative stimuli. These sleep-driven cognitive impairments can give rise to stress in any number of ways, from creating difficulty in relationships to causing problems with job performance.
How to Stress Less
There are many strategies that can help you manage stress so that it doesn’t interfere with sleep. Taking time to relax and wind down before bed is important to sleeping well and eliminating the stress of the day. A period of quiet time before bed allows you to step away from daily worries and set them aside before sleep. Try taking a warm shower or bath, getting a massage or doing some light stretching before bed. Certain scents or teas can even help you relax. Check out these essential oils, balms, pillows, and teas tested and scored by sleep experts. These peaceful activities can release physical tension and encourage the onset of sleep. If you find yourself struggling with stress and worry during the night, the following bedtime rituals can help.
- Decide. Try to sort out worries and concerns before bedtime. Choose a time during the day to deal with the stress you’re facing, and keep bedtime a worry-free zone. If you find yourself carrying stress to bed with you, keep a notepad on the bedside table where you can write down your concerns and set them aside before sleep.
- Stay organized. Keeping a clean office, home, and car can help you relieve some of the stress of your day. Clutter can lead to unnecessary stress when you can’t find an important document or the car keys.
- Learn to meditate. Meditation has been known to relieve stress and improve sleep.
- Be grateful. Taking time every day to give thanks for things that are good and comforting to you can help ease stress. Create a practice of giving thanks before bed for the great things that happened during the day.
- Exercise your mind. Mind puzzles can help you avoid the escalating, sleep-depriving cycle of worrisome thoughts.
Try breathing exercises. Breathing techniques can help you relax. Slow your breathing and start to relax by inhaling to a count of four, holding your breath for a count of eight, and exhaling on another count of four.
Let’s face it, there’s always going to be stress in our lives. And a little stress never hurt anyone. Cortisol actually helps you find food and run away from unsafe situations. You just need to take the time to find out what daily stressors are affecting your sleep and how to handle it. By taking steps in your daily routine to make sure you get the proper amount of rest, you’re already well on your way to a dealing with stress in a healthy way. With attention and practice, you can break the sleep-stress cycle, both to feel better and sleep better.
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