How to Sleep When Stressed
Staring at the ceiling. The hours slowly tick by. Thoughts play noisily on loop in your head. You consider decisions, analyse work situations, worry about a loved one – we’ve all been there.
Most people will experience sleep issues at some point in their lifetime for all sorts of reasons.
Stress is an all too familiar culprit as one of the most common causes of a sleepless night. With Stress Awareness Week (4 to 8 November) and Stress Awareness Day (6 November) approaching, the time seems right to explore the relationship between stress and sleep.
What is stress?
Stress is a natural biological reaction that has evolved amongst humankind. Although we often associate stress with the modern world, it has descended from our prehistoric ancestors. Stress occurs when we feel under threat and don’t have enough emotional resources to cope with a situation.
What causes stress?
Some common causes of stress include work, personal finances, and family life. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly added a further layer of concern, with research by the Office for National Statistics finding in early October that 7 in 10 adults were worried about the impact of COVID-19 on their life.
Although our body can handle the occasional bout of short-term stress, ongoing stress can profoundly impact our mental and physical health. For instance, chronic stress can lead to, and worsen, several health problems, including anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, and high blood pressure. It can even cause a heart attack or stroke.
The stress cycle
Today the stress process is categorised into five different stages, known as the “stress cycle”:
Stage 1: Alarm
We all know that feeling when stress begins to ‘build-up.’ You might be trying to hit an approaching deadline at work, dealing with a relationship issue, struggling financially, or simply juggling the demands and pressures of everyday life.
These triggers are called “stressors.” They kick off your body’s response to stress. When a stressor is detected, the brain activates the adrenal glands, which release the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline, resulting in the stress response, otherwise known as “fight or flight.” Your body reacts physically. You feel hot. Your heart races. Your palms get sweaty.
Stage 2: Resistance
In the resistance phase of stress, your body will try to bring you back down to Earth by secreting the anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol to calm the negative effects of stress. Even though this gives us a fraction of time to push back against the stress, it doesn’t eliminate the stressor. It’s just a quick fix. However, tackling the stressor head-on during this stage can lead to a more successful recovery period.
Stage 3: Recovery
In this stage, you become aware of the stress. By accepting the stressor’s existence, you’ll often step back and take the necessary steps to alleviate the reaction the stressor has triggered if you ignore the stress, the body transitions to the next stage.
Stage 4: Adaptation
You may choose to adapt to the stressful environment itself, but by doing this, you submit to prolonging the state of stress, unhealthy shifts in weight, and trouble managing your emotions. Other stressors may also pile on top of this, doubling the impact.
Stage 5: Burnout
Existing in a state of constant stress will eventually cause you to burn out. The cumulative effect of ignoring the impact of multiple stressors will inevitably lead to further and more problematic health conditions.
This all sounds very hormone-heavy, which may seem out of your control, but it is possible to relieve stress with intervention. Before we discuss ways to do this, let’s look at why stress stops you from falling asleep.
Why stress impacts sleep
In the morning, the cortisol levels in the body are usually at their highest to help us wake up so we can start the day. Cortisol levels usually decrease as the day progresses and reach their lowest in the evening, enabling us to relax and fall asleep. If your body produces higher volumes of cortisol due to stress, you may struggle to fall asleep, find yourself waking up in the early hours of the morning, and not enter the restorative sleep stage.
This relates to our ‘fight or flight instinct. The stress reaction causes the brain to enter a hyperarousal state, meaning the brain is on guard and ready to alert the body at the first sign of danger. Typically, you can’t switch off, you have rapid thoughts, or you feel wide awake. Even if you fall asleep, high cortisol levels will prevent you from entering a deep sleep if you need to fight or take flight during the night.
Without restorative sleep your body can’t repair itself and re-energise, leaving you feeling fatigued, frustrated and even more stressed. The cycle continues.
Stress in children and teens
It’s not only adults who are susceptible to stress. Stress can also emerge in childhood through adolescence and as they transition to adulthood. At these different stages of their development, they may face pressures in different areas of their daily lives, creating stress.
The pressure to perform well at school
Depending on the child’s age, they’ll experience similar pressures at school:
- The pressure of SATs (children): Former student health GP Dominique Thompson has underlined that “School is a source of huge anxiety,” and with children as young as 6 or 7 years old taking SAT exams, children are unwillingly exposed to the pressure of academic achievement at an early age, causing worry about the idea of failure.
- The pressure of achieving good grades (teenagers): As children grow, so can their worries. As their workload increases, teens often have to cope with the expectation of getting ‘good grades,’ pressures of getting into university, or securing a job which can be daunting and stressful.
It’s not only in the classroom that children experience stressful situations. Outside, they have to contend with different social pressures:
- Pressure to be popular (children): Popularity is another stress factor for kids. Children may find it hard to fit in, make friends or even cope with bullying, which can cause anxiety and upset.
- The pressure of growing up (teenagers): With puberty in full swing, adolescence is a tough time for teenagers. They may be struggling to form their own identity or feel uncomfortable about their appearance as they develop. They may also feel they have to live up to social pressures within their circle of friends.
Although home may be a refuge from the outside world, being part of a family can still create stressful situations:
- Pressure to feel secure (children): Children are sensitive to changes at home. Whether it’s changed in their parents’ moods, moving home, divorce, or welcoming a new sibling, lack of security can cause children to feel stressed.
- Pressure to cope with change (teenagers): Teenagers can also be impacted by any changes that interrupt family life’s regularity. The worries your teen may have about academic and social pressures can cause them to be disruptive at home. Teens may also be worried about transitioning to adult life and leaving home for the first time.
How to help
In children, stress may present itself in the form of nightmares, bedwetting, or the inability to fall asleep. Typically, teenagers’ stress-related problems often come to the surface in a surge of emotions, tiredness, and a lack of concentration.
If you suspect your child is experiencing sleep problems, create a relaxed, safe, and open atmosphere at home and encourage your child to voice their worries and concerns. A bedtime routine is also important, regardless of age. Please find out how much sleep your child needs for their age. Since high social media intake has been linked to poor sleep, you should also ensure that your child is having at least 30 minutes free of screen time before they go to sleep.
Tips for managing stress
Of course, you don’t have to put up with stress. There are ways to manage it. Here are a few tips:
Identify the source
Start by pinpointing your stressor(s) and notice what triggers stress for you. Try to take back control by planning how you can deal with the stressful situation at hand.
Talk about your stress
Spending time with friends and family is an effective way to de-stress. They can also offer advice about the situation you are facing.
Know your limits
If you know that taking on too many commitments increases your stress levels, learn how to say no. By spreading yourself too thinly, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed.
Grab a pen
Writing down your worries is a useful exercise as it gets your thoughts out of your head and onto paper. This will allow you to notice stress patterns and feel less saturated by your worries when you’re ready to go to sleep.
Any form of regular exercise, whether it’s running, cycling, Zumba, yoga, or a high-intensity interval training (HIT) class, is a popular stress-buster. Although it may not solve the root of the stressful situation itself, exercise helps clear the mind by releasing “happy hormones” known as endorphins. Physical activity also has a positive impact on sleep.
Quick sleep fixes
If you find yourself reading this while lying in bed at 3 am unable to fall asleep, here are some quick fixes that may serve you in the short term:
Control your breathing
Patterned breathing is a deep breathing technique that helps you relax and fall asleep. Lie in a comfortable position with your eyes closed, breathe in for a few seconds and hold the breath for around seven seconds. Exhale for eight seconds or for slightly longer than you held the breath. Repeat this pattern until you can relax.
Listen to a podcast
Listening to a podcast or reading in bed can be an effective distraction technique that will help you turn your attention away from any stressful or negative thoughts looming in your mind.
Practise meditation and mindfulness
Relaxation techniques take your mind off your worries and help you focus on the present moment. You can practice a body scan by noticing where you are carrying tension. If your mind starts to wander intentionally, bring back the focus to your body. You could also try listening to a mindfulness app for guidance.
Long-term sleep fixes
Along with stress management, fixing sleeplessness for good starts with looking at your daily routine and making subtle but effective lifestyle changes:
Revise your bedtime routine
Try to maintain a regular bedtime and sleep routine. Ensure that you’re going to bed early enough to get the right amount of sleep. Adults should sleep at least 6 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Relaxing before bed with a warm bath, light yoga stretches, journaling, or reading a book can also help unwind your body and unwire your mind.
With adults spending more than 40% of the day on screens during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hardly surprising switching off before bedtime is difficult. Try to take a break from screens as bedtime approaches. The blue light emitted from your devices can interfere with your body’s melatonin production, disrupting the regularity of your sleep cycle.
Check your mattress
Having a well-made mattress that supports your spine and neck is an important part of sleep wellness and can combat stress, as found in a sleep research study. In the study, 59 men and women evaluated their stress levels (comparing anxiety, irritability, racing thoughts) based on spending a month on their regular mattress and another month on a new medium-firm mattress. The study found that the new mattresses enabled “a significant decrease in stress,” and sleep quality had improved.
Manage the room temperature
Believe it or not, keeping your bedroom cool helps you fall asleep quicker and improve sleep quality. Our body temperature naturally drops as we get ready to fall asleep, so a cold room supports your body’s sleep instinct. A cold room also increases your melatonin levels, melatonin being a hormone that regulates sleep.
Stay away from coffee
Caffeine increases cortisol production, so drinking it too close to bedtime can leave you feeling wide awake or even bouncing off the walls. Switch your evening hot drink for a relaxing camomile tea.
A few final thoughts on sleeping when stressed
Stress can creep into our lives in one way or another, but how we control that stress and manage its potential impact on our sleep takes self-awareness and practice.
There’s no “one size fits all” approach to conquering the effect of stress on your sleep, but now you have an idea of how stress works and interacts with sleep, and by trialing the techniques above, you might find what works for you.
If you’ve tried making changes to your sleeping habits and applied stress management techniques but are still struggling to cope, we recommend that you contact your GP.