top of page

Stress and Sleep: The Stressful and Sleepless Cycle

Stressful sleep

Do you find yourself lying awake at night, tossing and turning, not able to shake thoughts about your day? You may think to yourself, “I have been running around all day, I should be tired.” or even “I had so much time today to do things, why am I thinking about things now?”. This is more common than you think.

Does stress impact my sleep? Or does sleep impact my stress?

Both! And absolutely! Think of stress as the phantom maestro, conducting an orchestra of hormones and emotions that disrupt your body's natural rhythm. Its influence can be both subtle and profound, coloring your nights with restlessness.

How does stress impact sleep?

Stress is an age-old evolutionary response, gearing us up to face perceived threats. When we're stressed, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, aka the "stress hormone." This hormone serves essential functions like regulating metabolism and reducing inflammation. But in excess, especially during the nighttime, it can meddle with our body's circadian rhythms – our internal clock that dictates sleep-wake cycles.

High cortisol levels in the evening can hamper our ability to relax. So, even if your body screams for rest, your brain is a frenzied whirlpool of activity. You might find it hard to drift off, or you might awaken frequently, never really sinking into that deep, rejuvenating REM sleep. Let’s look a little further in the next section…

How do I know if stress is impacting my sleep?

Our bodies often whisper before they shout. Symptoms that stress is compromising your sleep include:

  • Restlessness: Turning and tossing, adjusting pillows endlessly, and just not finding that 'right' spot.

  • Interrupted Sleep: Waking up often during the night, sometimes with racing or worrisome thoughts.

  • Morning Fatigue: Feeling drained or groggy upon waking, as if sleep was just a surface experience.

  • Dream Overload: An overactive mind can lead to vivid or stressful dreams, which can be tiring in itself.

  • Nightly Ruminations: If your nighttime is colored with incessant thoughts about past events or potential future challenges, stress is likely the culprit.

Now the other way… How does sleep impact my stress?

Sleep and stress share a bi-directional relationship, meaning each can influence the other. Let's delve into how sleep specifically impacts stress:

  • Cognitive Function: A lack of sleep can hinder cognitive functions like memory, decision-making, and problem-solving. When these capabilities are diminished, day-to-day tasks can become more challenging, thus increasing stress levels. This is when you may notice you begin to make small errors in your day and at work.

  • Emotional Regulation: Sleep is essential for emotional equilibrium or balance. Insufficient rest can result in mood swings, irritability, and an inability to cope with minor frustrations. These emotional shifts can heighten perceived stress.

  • Physical Health: Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to various health issues like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The body's immune response is also compromised, making it easier to fall sick. Illness or even just the concern about these health issues can be a significant source of stress.

  • Stress Hormone Production: Sleep deprivation leads to elevated cortisol levels, the body's primary stress hormone. Higher cortisol levels not only make you feel more stressed but can further disrupt sleep, creating a vicious cycle.

  • Decreased Resilience: Sleep is when the body and mind heal and rejuvenate. Without adequate rest, our ability to face challenges and adapt to change (our resilience) diminishes. Lower resilience makes us more susceptible to feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

  • Heightened Reactivity: Sleep-deprived individuals often have a heightened stress response to various stimuli, even those that would normally be considered non-threatening. This amplified reaction can result in an overproduction of stress hormones for seemingly minor events.

  • Impaired Judgment: Lack of sleep can distort our perception of events, making us interpret neutral situations as negative. This altered judgment can lead to unnecessary worry and stress.

What can I do to improve my sleep?

Understanding the issue is half the battle won. To reclaim your peaceful nights, consider these strategies:

  • Establish a Routine: As creatures of habit, adults, like children, thrive on routine. Design a wind-down ritual. It might be reading a calming book, indulging in some light stretches, or immersing in soft, tranquil melodies.

  • Limit Screen Time: Our digital screens emit blue light which, while invisible to the naked eye, has a potent effect. It tricks our brains into "daytime mode," suppressing melatonin, our sleep hormone. Think of how stimulating some of the things we look at on our phone is? Aim to switch off electronic devices an hour before bedtime.

  • Embrace Mindfulness: Techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery can soothe a restless mind and signal the body that it's time to rest.

  • Physical Activity: Engaging in regular exercise, be it a brisk walk, yoga, or a full-blown gym session, helps to metabolize stress hormones and improve sleep quality. However, try to avoid vigorous workouts close to bedtime.

  • Dietary Considerations: Limit the intake of caffeine and alcohol, especially in the latter half of the day. While alcohol might make you feel sleepy initially, it often disrupts the sleep cycle later in the night.

How can I reduce my stress?

Just as you are working hard to improve your sleep, we need to also consider how to reduce your stress. Both feed into each other causing disruptions that feel like a never ending cycle of stress and sleepless nights. Here are some practical and effective strategies to help decrease stress - challenge yourself to see how you can decrease stress (even by a little):

  • Physical Activity: Regular exercise acts as a natural stress reliever. Whether it's a brisk walk, yoga, or intense cardio, physical activity boosts the production of endorphins — the body's natural mood lifters. See if you can increase your movement even by 10 minutes. Is there a new neighborhood you want to explore? Did you want to walk and get your favorite cup of coffee? Is there a changing of season that you want to see?

  • Meditation and Deep Breathing: These practices can help focus your mind and reduce anxiety and other stressful feelings. Techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness meditation can be particularly beneficial.

  • Get Adequate Sleep: As we've discussed, sleep is vital. Ensure you're getting enough rest and sticking to a consistent sleep schedule.

  • Limit Caffeine and Sugar: Too much caffeine or sugar can make you jittery and anxious - especially before bed. Try to reduce or eliminate these, especially if you're sensitive to them. Try to bring awareness to when you are last drinking caffeine and how your sleep is.

  • Connect with Others: Talk to someone you trust about what's stressing you out. Simply expressing what you're going through can be very therapeutic.

  • Set Boundaries: Don't be afraid to say "no" or to set limits if you need to. This is especially important in work settings or when managing personal commitments. For instance, if you are invited to meet up with friends at 10P but have been working hard to go to sleep at 10P, you may need to sit a night out but this also plays into listening to yourself more.

  • Engage in Hobbies: Spend time doing activities you love, whether that's reading, crafting, cooking, or any other hobby.

  • Limit Exposure to Stressors: If news or certain activities increase your stress, try to limit your exposure. It's essential to stay informed, but consider designating specific times to check the news or engage in potentially stressful activities.

  • Time Management: Prioritize tasks. Break projects into steps. Delegate when you can. And most importantly, be sure to take breaks when you need them.

  • Avoid Alcohol, Cigarettes, and Drugs: These can provide a temporary escape but often result in increased stress and health problems in the long run.

  • Maintain a Balanced Diet: Healthy meals can improve your mood and boost your energy. Also, remember to stay hydrated.

  • Seek Professional Help: If you're feeling overwhelmed, consider seeking professional help. A therapist or counselor can provide strategies to cope and address the root causes of your stress.

  • Journaling: Maintaining a journal, where you note things for which you're thankful, can shift the focus from what might be stressing you out to what brings joy and positivity to your life. Even keeping a journal where you find you are most stressed is helpful so you can write down your thoughts to “get them out”, even next to your bed.

  • Laugh: It’s hard to feel anxious when you’re laughing. Find humor in life, watch a comedy, or call a friend who always makes you laugh.

  • Limit Screen Time: Especially before bedtime, to ensure quality sleep. Additionally, consider digital detox days to disconnect and refresh.

  • Relaxing Activities: Engage in things like taking a warm bath, listening to soothing music, or using aromatherapy.

You may have noticed some overlap between this list and the previous one. It makes a lot of sense there is overlap since stress impacts sleep and sleep impacts stress. It's essential to find what works best for you and incorporate those methods into your regular routine to reduce stress and improve sleep. Remember, managing stress is an ongoing process, and it's okay to seek assistance when needed.

How can a therapist help?

You don't have to figure this all out on your own. Therapists are trained to provide valuable insights and strategies tailored to your unique situation. Therapy offers a sanctuary - a space where you can voice your concerns, fears, and frustrations, knowing you'll be met with understanding and empathy. The very act of externalizing your feelings can be therapeutic. In sharing, we often find clarity and relief.

Remember, each night offers a fresh opportunity for rest and rejuvenation. Here's to more peaceful slumbers and brighter mornings!

Seeking a therapist to address your stress and sleep? Why search far when online therapy is right at your fingertips? Better Minds Counseling & Services is adept at supporting adults struggling with stress and challenges of poor sleep through their virtual mental health offerings. Brittany Webb, LPC CCATP, a licensed professional counselor and certified clinical anxiety treatment professional, is here to guide you through the cycles of stress and sleep. Book a complimentary introductory session with her now!

Blog Disclaimer - These posts are not meant to treat, diagnose, or serve as a replacement for therapy. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health emergency, please contact your local crisis center or dial 911. Here are more immediate resources as well.

bottom of page