We all know how stress makes us feel – that’s easy to explain. But how much can you say about the relationship between stress and the quality of your sleep?
Stress and sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and others start a vicious cycle, with one feeding the order and ensuring it gets even worse.
The lack of sleep then makes you feel more stressed, making it even less likely that you will sleep well the following night. On and on it goes indefinitely and may create serious physical and mental health problems that could cause severe damages over time – unless you take matters in hand and stop it dead in its tracks.
What is stress?
When you hear the word stress or see it written before you, you know what it is, right? However, you would probably find that your response differs from thousands of others if you were to define it.
The official definition of stress, as per the National Institutes of Health, is “how the brain and body respond to any demands.” Stress is your body’s physical, mental, and emotional response to any change that requires an adjustment.
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Seen it this way, stress does not appear to be that problematic. And indeed, stress is not always a bad thing. Most people make the incorrect assumption that all stress is the same, when in fact, there is such a thing as good stress – that’s motivating and beneficial, and bad stress causes worries, anxiety, and sometimes severe health problems like insomnia.
How do you respond to stress?
The stress response is a primal reaction that ensured our survival, but in today’s world, we do not require this response as much, if ever. Instead, our response to stress has been overwritten by being late for work, giving a presentation, or experiencing social alienation.
While serious in their own right, these do not warrant a massive release of stress hormone but is even worse when it becomes chronic.
Stress is usually linked to intensively demanding circumstances in which you could find yourself, like money issues, a failed relationship, or losing a job. These circumstances often influence how you live your life to get through the situation at hand. This, in turn, has a direct impact on your mental state and, with time, your sleep schedule as you tend to find yourself sleeping less because you are worried.
How your body reacts to stress
The way your body reacts to stressful situations is that your nervous system releases stress hormones to increase mental or physical activity. These hormones include adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.
This reaction is your body’s way of preparing you to fight your situation or bolt away from it, also known as the “flight or fight” response.
However, until you can deal with whatever your problem at that point is or get away from it, your nervous system will constantly secret these hormones. This continuous secretion could, in time, have a ravaging effect on your general health.
What are the effects of continuous stress hormone secretion?
It’s helpful to get a “visualization” of what is going on inside your body to get a better understanding of the dangerous effects stress can have.
Heart and blood vessels
Your heart is a muscle, and a healthy heart has very little fat, is extremely powerful, and contracts like clockwork for the duration of your life.
But stress hormones change all this. Firstly, the heart starts beating rapidly under their influence, partly in response to the stimulating effect of these hormones and partly because the blood vessels are constricted. To understand this, think of a water pump.
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You can use a half-inch pipe for the water supply or a large, one-inch water pump. When using the half-inch size, the pump has to work harder to deliver the same amount of water or take forever. The same is true for your heart, except that it has to keep a quota to ensure that your cells do not die from lack of oxygen.
Have you ever noticed that under stress or anxiety, you feel “butterflies” in your stomach and find it a challenge to hold your food or bowel? This is a direct result of these hormones.
Under stress, the stomach produces more acid, which either helps to speed up digestion (and the desire to empty the bowels) or contributes to acid reflux and heartburn. For this reason, it is said that stomach ulcers are more common in people who are under high stress. Also, as food seems to move faster than usual in the intestines, nutrient deficiency and diarrhea can occur.
The increased cortisol secretion during a stress event often also leads to cravings for fatty foods. This carving is the body’s mechanism for getting ready to fight a challenging situation.
The respiratory system
Respiration is tied intimately to our circulatory system, which in part explains why your heart pumps faster during exercise, and you’re breathing faster because blood needs oxygen.
In most people, this is fine and not a problem, but in asthmatics or those with pulmonary disease, it can kill you. Stress can precipitate asthma attacks or constriction of the airways, making it difficult to breathe.
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Also, tied to the steady increase in your blood pressure, there is a breach in your breathing because of the rapid rise of your heartbeat rate. This condition leaves you always hyperventilating to enable proper breathing. Hyperventilation is also common, and a characteristic of a panic attack (or insensitivity to adrenalin).
The reproductive system
Nothing wrecks a sex life like stress, as millions can testify to. This isn’t just psychological but also physical when it interferes with a man’s ability to achieve and maintain erections. In women, menstrual cycle disturbances occur, which can cause painful periods or wildly fluctuating hormone levels throughout the month.
In men, cortisol interferes with the normal production of testosterone via the testes, so that sex drive crashes. Do not take work into the bedroom- your sex life may never recover.
Endocrine glands are those parts of the body (some of them organs) that produce hormones that enter the body’s bloodstream. These include the adrenal glands, liver, and pancreas. The adrenal glands are forced to produce more cortisol and adrenaline – the two essential stress hormones.
In response, the liver may begin to release stored glycogen in the form of glucose to improve your seemingly agitated state. The pancreas may start to produce more insulin, and when the stress response subsides, everything returns to normal.
However, diabetics, pre-diabetics, or people with a glucose sensitivity disorder will not store all the circulating sugar again. For this reason, stress is very bad for people with diabetes.
There is an intense stiffening of your muscles during periods of high stressing, which can lead to muscular pains and injuries. More intense situations like migraine headaches could also arise as a result of these muscular pains.
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With all the above-stated facts, you can see the different ways stress affects your body’s metabolism and entire health. So it is no surprise as to why you are not able to sleep. Your body is in a constant fight-state to overcome that challenging situation you are facing.
How stress deprives you of sleep
There are various ways in which high levels of stress lead to inadequate sleep. The first of these is that you often find yourself turning and tossing continuously due to a feeling of restlessness. The two main reasons for this is the increased heartbeat rate as well as amplified adrenaline levels when your body is stressed.
In times when you are going through intense stress, your body reacts to this by staying in a constant state of alert. Your body feels it shouldn’t be resting as there is a turbulent situation that needs to be taken care of with immediate effect. For this reason, you find yourself wide awake at night, worrying about whatever is disturbing you. In some cases, you might be able to fall asleep for a short while, but often you won’t be able to stay asleep for long.
But even in situations where you manage to make out time to get some sleep, you may experience that you’re not able to fall asleep quickly because your body is still highly invigorated due to working overtime.
Why you’re feeling tired during the day
Of course, not getting enough restful sleep during the night will almost always leave you tired and exhausted during the day. But there is another seemingly unacknowledged condition known as adrenal fatigue, which occurs following periods of chronically high cortisol and adrenalin production, which suppresses its actions.
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This means that the normal get up and go that our adrenal glands allow is no longer present. Drive and motivation become more and more challenging to maintain without the use of stimulants that produce a forced effect of these hormones. The result is a state of constant inertia and lethargy during the day.
13 proven ways how to reduce stress and improve sleep
So intense Stress levels bring about a lack of sleep, and a sufficient sleep-time helps reduce stress. What sounds simple is a big challenge for many of us. The following points can help you get better sleep and, in turn, reduce your stress level.
1. Recognize what you can and can’t control
Remember the Serenity Prayer? Here it is: “God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The ability to recognize the difference between what you can control and what you cannot control removes unnecessary stress. You can immediately stop stressing yourself over all the things you cannot control. This releases energy to focus on what you can control.
2. Sort out your worries
This is the first significant step in getting a hold of better sleep. You must make out time during the day to pinpoint what exactly your worries are. Be sure to access your day’s activities and figure out the things that bother you.
In situations where you find yourself taking these worries to bed, you could make use of a readily accessible notepad and do some journaling. This enables you to pen down the things that occupy your mind during bedtime before trying to get some sleep.
Engaging in exercises is very vital in ensuring you an adequate sleep. When you exercise, you burn off a lot of energy, which functions to relax your muscles. However, please note that this workout routine should be carried out a few hours before dinner for maximum effect. Exercising a few hours before bedtime also helps to bring your body temperature to a normalized level before you get some sleep.
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Engaging in mental exercises is also adequate. Mind engaging puzzles and quizzes help take your mind off from worrying thoughts, enabling you to sleep better and longer, reducing stress.
4. Eat healthy food
Therefore, if you haven’t done so yet, start to change your diet by focusing on these three factors: low sugar, low caffeine, and reduced alcohol. By implementing these simple changes, you will immediately get into better health and reduce stress in your life.
5. Manage your time effectively
A critical skill in stress management is time management; this means that you need to prioritize your schedule and responsibilities, use your time wisely, and make sure that there is time for rest and relaxation.
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Do you find it difficult to say no to someone who asks you for help or asks for a favor? This kind of behavior could directly fuel your stress because every time you say yes, it affects something. It always leads to more stress, so you need to learn to manage your time effectively and take your time without feeling bad about it.
6. Assign responsibilities
This goes with the previous one. Often, burdening yourself with many responsibilities at the same time can result in increased stress levels. You have to make out the time to relax and free-up your mind. You can only achieve this if you assign different responsibilities to different individuals to handle.
There are a variety of meditation techniques available, which means that you will most likely find one that you feel comfortable with. It not only helps to calm your racing mind but also reduces stress.
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It allows you to focus your attention on your breathing (or a soothing image) and just be still and at peace with yourself.
8. Staying the course
If you have previously turned to unhealthy coping methods, do not lose hope when you have a slip. It’s not the end of the world if you pick up a cigarette or have a drink, but don’t let them sneak back in again out of habit. Instead, concentrate on how to regain control.
9. Maintain your social network
Your social network offers support in the most stressful times. It is not a support group where you share your problems with others who are struggling with the same thing; it is your friends and family. Simple things like a phone call, a coffee with a friend, or going to the movies with your family strengthen your relationships and give you breathing space when you’re under stress.
Deep belly or diaphragmatic breathing can help reduce some of the stress symptoms, including lowering heart rate and blood pressure and promoting a more relaxed state. Breathing out over a more extended time than breathing in can also have a relaxing effect. If you feel overwhelmed, take a full minute just to breathe. You can then think more clearly, and you are more alert.
11. Take breaks
Studies show that regular breaks from a task can make you more productive and efficient. If you keep trying to get the job done, you will wear yourself out and lose motivation. Experts recommend a short break of a few minutes approximately every 90 minutes, as our ability to concentrate diminishes after this time. Use the break to stretch, move, yawn, or take a short nap.
12. Use white noise
When you’re stressed, sounds and smells irritate you, even if you typically don’t notice them. For example, the sound of traffic at night can become very frustrating if you live near a busy road.
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That is why white noise is an effective way to make you sleep better. White noise includes sounds like rain drizzling or waves beating gently against the beach. These sounds help you relax and naturally reduce stress. Some people cannot sleep without white noise devices.
13. Sleep in the dark
Artificial light interferes with the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps us get restful sleep. People who are stressed may find it even more challenging to initiate sufficient melatonin release, which is why it’s crucial to sleep in a dark room. A combination of white noise and a cool, dark, comfortable bedroom will finally help you get a restful sleep.
It’s a fact that stress cannot always be avoided in our life. But the extent to which stress controls your life is what matters the most as it could be damaging to your health.
When responding to stress in your life, it’s sometimes easy to slip into unhealthy ways, as they are often easier and quicker fixes. The problem is that most of the time, quick fixes are not long-lasting.
There are plenty of ways you can cope with your chronic stress issues healthily. They may take a bit of effort, but they are far more effective than unhealthy alternatives. By ensuring you adhere to the above-listed steps, you will notice that soon you have a healthier life, a significantly reduced stress level, and better sleep.