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How Does Stress Affect Your Sleep (And What You Can Do About It)
If you ever found yourself lying in bed tossing and turning, unable to sleep due to stress. You’re not alone.
Staring at the ceiling feeling worried or anxious about something that happened at work. Or mentally going through all the things you need to do the following day. Or maybe you had a fight with a friend or you’re worried about a family member. We’ve all been there. But what you might not know is losing sleep due to stress is actually making you more stressed out. If you’re so stressed that you can’t sleep, your body creates a never-ending cycle that’s difficult to break.
When you’re having a really good deep sleep your brain tells your body to stop producing stress hormones. That’s where the term ‘sleep on it’ comes from. Have you ever felt anxious about something and wake up the next morning feeling like it wasn’t that big of a deal? And wondering why you were so concerned about it the day before? That’s because while you were in deep sleep your body put the brakes on the stress hormones.
On the other hand, if you don’t get enough sleep at night your body increases its levels of stress hormones. Leaving you and your body being, even more, stressed the next day. You find yourself tossing and turning in bed again, unable to sleep, feeling anxious and your body creates even more stress hormones. And the cycle repeats itself over and over again until your situation becomes chronic.
Not only that but the more tired you feel during the day, the less likely you’re able to cope with stress. And the less likely you’re able to work out a solution to the problem that’s making you feel stressed. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The good news is that you can put a stop to the stress cycle. To do that you need to understand what causes stress in the first place and how your body reacts to it.
What Causes Stress?
Stress is actually a very normal part of life. We all deal with stress at some point.
It can even be helpful at times. It can motivate you to get things done, or help you run the last kilometre of a marathon.
But if your stress gets out of control, becomes chronic or you’ve been stressed out for a long time, it can seriously interfere with your job, family life, and health.
When something stressful is happening to you, your body launches a physical response. Your nervous system releases hormones that prepare you to either fight or take flight. That’s where the term ‘fight or flight’ comes from.
While you’re in the ‘fight or flight’ stage you may notice your body reacting. Your heartbeat may speed up, your muscles tense, you get a bit sweaty or your breathing gets faster. This phase usually doesn’t last long, it’s temporary. It’s known as acute stress and your body recovers fairly quickly from it.
But what if your ‘fight or flight’ phase lasts longer? Or if after the ‘fight or flight’ phase you feel like you’re in a state of stress for weeks? Or even months?
Long-term stress is known as chronic stress. And it can cause very serious health problems. If your body is constantly creating stress hormones it puts a lot of strain on your whole system. It can cause you to age more quickly and put you at risk of illness.
Not only does chronic stress affect your body but also your thoughts, emotions and your behaviour. You may start to suffer from many health problems, such as:
- Weakened immune system,
- Rapid breathing,
- High blood pressure,
- Risk of heart attack,
- High blood sugar,
- Pounding heart,
- Fertility problems,
- Stomach ache or nausea,
- Erectile dysfunction,
- Low sex drive,
- Missed periods,
- Tense muscles,
- Weight gain,
- Skin problems,
- Flare-ups in asthma or arthritis.
What Can You Do?
Get more sleep. Remember that deep sleep stops your body from producing stress hormones. And that’s exactly what you need so you can get more clarity about your situation.
But we all know getting more sleep can be challenging. Especially if you can’t stop your brain from thinking about all the things that are making you feel stressed.
The good news is that there are a number of things you can do today to help you sleep better.
Here are our top tips on how to reduce stress and get more sleep:
- Try yoga, deep breathing or meditation
Yoga, deep breathing and meditation are all practices that help to still your mind and bring about a feeling of peace. And the great news is that with practice anyone can do it. You’ll feel more relaxed, have a clearer mind and be able to manage stressful situations.
- Regular exercise
Exercise is not only great for getting a good night’s sleep but it also has stress-busting benefits. When you exercise your brain releases endorphins – neurotransmitters that make you feel great!
- Reduce screen time
We talk a lot about how blue light coming from your screens affects your sleep. That’s because your brain recognises blue light coming from your TV, device or smartphone as daylight making it harder to fall asleep. So switch off your electronics at least 1 hour before bedtime.
- Take a hot bath
Increasing your body temperature and then allowing it to drop actually relaxes you and taking a hot bath is a great way to do this. But make sure you have your bath at least 2 hours before bedtime to allow your body enough time to drop in temperature for full relaxation.
- No caffeine at night
We all know that caffeine makes you more alert so try herbal tea at night instead. Even better, no caffeine after midday.
- Get regular
Having a regular sleep and wake time helps your body stick to its own internal body clock, also known as circadian rhythm. Add some routine to your evenings such as a hot bath, laying your clothes out for the next day and turning off screens. By having a routine you’ll be sending your brain a clear signal that it’s time to sleep.
- Make sleep a priority
It’s so tempting to binge watch your favourite TV show, stay up late watching a movie or go out with friends every night. Saying no to yourself and others is tough. But if you’re suffering from chronic stress, it’s really important to prioritise your health. And that means sticking to your regular sleep and wake routine. Your friends will understand and you can always catch up on TV on your day off.
If you've taken steps to control your stress but you still can’t sleep, see your doctor. If you think your sleepless nights are caused by something other than stress such as a sleep disorder, take our free sleep self-assessment questionnaire and find out what’s causing your lack of sleep.