How Does Stress Affect Sleep?
Stress is often an unfortunate side effect of a busy life. If you have lots of responsibilities to your job or family, you may feel like it is impossible to keep up with all the demands on your time. Sleeplessness is commonly associated with being under stress, leaving you feeling physically as well as mentally drained. Knowing the potential ways stress affects your sleep can help you take steps to combat its negative effects.
Stress can interfere with both your ability to get to sleep and the quality of sleep you achieve once you’ve managed to drift off. This is due in part to how we handle stress—how many times have you laid awake at night, thinking about the project or meeting you have to deal with the next day?—but also how the human body has evolved to deal with challenging situations.
The body’s autonomic nervous system releases adrenaline and cortisol when presented with a stressful situation, a reaction known as the fight-or-flight response. These hormones boost your heart rate and blood pressure as well as increase the level of glucose in the bloodstream, making more energy available to your body. This heightened level of arousal is meant to help you cope with whatever crisis has set off this natural bodily alarm system.
If the situation causing you stress is quickly resolved, then your hormone levels drop again and you can relax. However, if the situation is ongoing, or many different things are making you anxious, that reaction can stay turned on, keeping you revved up even when you need to rest. This can make it hard to get to sleep and can rouse you before you have gotten the rest you need. Lack of sleep may then contribute to your overall stress level, creating a vicious cycle.
The key to breaking the pattern is focusing on stress management techniques that can help calm you down at the end of the day, setting you up for a successful night’s sleep. Some useful strategies are:
- Engaging in physical exercise during the day to both reduce anxiety and to promote sleepiness at bedtime.
- Lowering or eliminating caffeine intake in the afternoon.
- Establishing healthy boundaries between work and home life so that you can relax in the evening.
- Making the hour before bed a period of restful activity, such as reading, meditation, stretching, or breathing exercises.
This kind of self-care practice is most effective when it is consistent, so you should maintain the habits you’ve adopted even after—or especially after!—they have started to achieve good results.
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