Can stress and anxiety cause sleep problems?
Emotions such as stress and anxiety do serve a purpose – they help to prepare your body for survival situations where you could be facing a fight or flight scenario. The problem is that your body has no sense of moderation – it cannot distinguish between you facing down a grizzly bear or your manager at work.
Stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, are produced by your adrenal glands and help to make you feel more alert whilst focusing on redirecting nutrients from other parts of your body towards internal organs such as your lungs, heart and muscles so you are ready to respond in a potential fight or flight situation.
It can also affect how you absorb nutrients in your intestine and how your digestive system breaks down food, which is why stress is frequently accompanied by upsets such as constipation or diarrhoea.
Experiencing infrequent moments of stress is unlikely to affect your long-term health, however, if stress is a regular presence in your life, over time it will impact both your physical and mental health, stimulating symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, mood swings, forgetfulness and hot sweats.
This can include your sleep patterns – if your body is triggering a stress reaction that releases cortisol and adrenaline at bedtime, you’re probably going to find it difficult to get to sleep. Not to mention, if your cortisol levels are erratic through the day, it can exhaust your adrenal glands, which in turn will cause further hormonal imbalances that may disrupt your sleep cycle.1
Can sleep deprivation cause stress?
According to a report by the Sleep Council in 2010, almost a third of the UK population were getting just 5-6 hours of sleep a night, meaning sleep deprivation is an ongoing problem that can have a real impact on your day to day life.
As I explore in my other blogs, ‘What does sleep deprivation do to your hormones?’ and ‘The dangers of dream deprivation’ sleep is important when it comes to releasing certain hormones and consolidating memories.
For example, a common side-effect of sleep deprivation is food cravings, stimulated by the hormone ghrelin. Unfortunately, during bouts of sleep deprivation, your body can release too much ghrelin and not enough leptin, an appetite suppressor, which is why you feel tempted to binge on sugary, carb-heavy snacks.
Sleep deprivation can also make it difficult for you to concentrate and cause irritability and mood swings, as well as difficulty processing emotions. This is where stress comes into the picture – if you’re finding it difficult to concentrate or cope with your emotions, you will start to feel increasingly anxious and worried, which will trigger a release of stress hormones, feeding a vicious cycle where stress begets sleep deprivation and sleep deprivation begets stress.
Is sleep good for stress?
Can getting enough sleep help to lower your stress levels? This is a complicated question and it depends on the origin of your stress. If sleep problems are causing you to experience increased levels of anxiety, then yes, a good night’s sleep should help to reduce this problem, giving your body and mind the time it needs to rest and recuperate.
But what if stress is causing your sleep problems? What if you’re lying awake at night worrying about bills or family members?
Well, getting a good night’s sleep can still help for the same reasons I’ve already mentioned – it can help your mind to recover and recuperate. It can ensure that you wake up feeling more able to cope with your problems as well as capable of making the important decisions and judgement calls that you might need to.
Sleep is also really important for your mood as well, as I elaborated in my blog ‘Is a good night’s sleep the key to happiness?’ One study identified sleep as one of the most important contributors to better living, beating out financial security and other factors.
This is possibly because your quality of sleep has such a big impact on your behaviour, social interactions and work performance, all of which can affect your quality of life, with social interactions being very important for maintaining a healthy mood and positive outlook.
Getting enough rest also gives us more get up and go, encouraging you to make the most out of opportunities rather than languishing at home feeling tired and lethargic!
5 great tips to help you overcome stress
So how can you overcome stress and prevent it from ruining your sleep patterns? There are a number of steps you can take to reduce the impact that stress has on your way of life and quality of sleep, but you may need to be prepared to make a few changes to your usual routine.
1 – Confront the source of your stress
This is often the most difficult step because many of us don’t like confrontation and want to avoid potentially tense situations. However, procrastination is definitely not the answer so if there is something you can do about feelings of stress or anxiety, try to find the courage to do it, whether it means speaking someone you love about how you’re being treated or taking a hard look at your financial situation.
In the end, you will feel better for taking control of the situation and it may help your long-term quality of living. Whatever the case, at least you can go to bed without worrying about what ‘might’ happen and instead focus your attention on what you want to happen.
2 – Talk to someone
A problem shared is a problem halved, so, if you aren’t ready to confront the source of your stress just yet, the next best thing you can do is talk to someone about it, whether it’s a family member or a friend. It might not solve your problem but at least it will give you a chance to get it off your chest and who knows, perhaps whoever you speak to will be able to offer a new perspective on the issue or suggest an alternative approach.
3– Make your bedroom a ‘stress-free’ environment
Your bedroom should be a place of relaxation, but for many of us it can turn into a second office, especially if we’re under pressure at work or trying to make a deadline. It can also be a place where we try to distract ourselves from our problems by browsing the internet on our smart phones, watching YouTube videos or perusing Facebook at 3am in the morning.
However, tablets, smart phones and laptops all have one thing in common – all of them can slow down your production of melatonin and, depending on the type of content you’re watching, can stimulate a stress reaction. That’s why I’d try to the resist the temptation to scan your phone when you’re struggling to sleep and instead read a book.
All of us are also guilty of using alarm clocks or setting alarms on our phone – how many of you hit snooze in the morning? Technology is evolving though, which is why I’d move away from devices that suddenly jerk you out of deep sleep and instead think about alternatives such as sun rise alarm clocks.
4 – Practice mindfulness
The practice of mindfulness is definitely gaining traction as way of focusing your mind and reducing your stress levels, enabling many to deal with stress in a more positive manner. It’s a very simple form of meditation that forces you to focus your full attention on your breath, allowing you to observe your own thoughts and become more aware about your body’s needs. It’s easy to practice and doesn’t have to be time consuming. The Headspace app is specifically aimed for beginners and offers 10 minute meditation exercises for free as well as a personalised progress page!
5 – Get outdoors
Exercising outdoors in another great way of boosting your mood and helping your sleep patterns! Spending time in the great outdoors can allow you to synthesise more vitamin D, a crucial nutrient for supporting your immunity that’s also thought to play a role in preventing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Exercising in itself is also associated with a variety of health benefits too, including boosting your mood and regulating your sleep patterns. Finally, as I mention in my blog, ‘Forest Bathing: How nature makes us happier’, spending time surrounded by nature is thought to lower your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, making you more relaxed and at peace.