How is sleep related to stress?
Just as eating right has an effect on your physical and mental well-being, so does sleeping right. Think about the last time you didn’t get enough sleep. How did it make you feel? Happy? Stress-free? Probably not.
Instead, you may have experienced some degree of the following:
- Daytime tiredness/fatigue
- Concentration problems
- Impaired memory retention
- Lowered immunity
- Increased appetite
- Risk of injury
Each of these factors alone may not be enough to stress you out, but given several of them over a period of time, your stress levels are going to rocket sky-high. Another way that stress and sleep are related is that stress can actually prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep and/or sleeping enough. If you’re laying in bed worried about all the things you’ll have to do tomorrow, chances are you won’t be sleeping very much or very well. As a result, you wake up tired and even more stressed out than before – and the vicious cycle continues.
How does sleep reduce stress?
Many people are under the false impression that when you sleep, your mind and body are both doing nothing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While you sleep, your body is doing all sorts of things that your mind isn’t aware of, including healing, consolidating memory, recharging, growing and regenerating cells and discharging emotions (even stressful ones) through dreams. Needless to say, sleeping is definitely not a waste of time. If anything, it can be the most productive thing you do all day.
In addition, when you get a good night’s sleep, you tend to be more productive and alert the next day. Sleeping less in order to accomplish more while you’re awake may actually hurt you in the long run. Most adults need an average of 7-8 hours of sleep a night to be healthy; growing teenagers need even more. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to train yourself to function normally with 1-2 fewer hours of sleep per night than you actually need, so when you don’t sleep enough, your body knows it. It’ll start to accumulate sleep debt. This means that if you go a couple nights with very little sleep and sleep an average number of hours the following night, your body will still be tired. Why is this a bad thing? When you lack sleep, your immune system suffers; your mind starts drawing blanks at the most inopportune moments and you’re back to square one: stressed out.
When Sleep (or lack thereof) and Stress Collide
When I was in college, I worked a night job that required me to stay up from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. several nights of the week. Often I would have class in the mornings, so instead of sleeping in-between work and class I decided to stay up all night instead. Bad idea. Not only did I have a hard time concentrating in class, but hours later, I didn’t remember half the things the professor talked about.
Not sleeping enough affects memory; during sleep, your brain consolidates everything you’ve experienced during the day so that you can better retain it in the long-term. I wasn’t sleeping enough, and my mind knew it. Not only was I cranky and miserable in class, but I zoned through the rest of the day – through meals, meetings, and often another night of work – like a regular zombie. I found trouble enjoying the things I used to enjoy, such as watching a movie or hanging out with a friend, simply because I was so sleep-deprived. I started missing deadlines and forgetting simple tasks. Did this stress me out? You bet. I’m pretty sure my blood pressure went way up during those horrendous months of sleep-deprivation, and I got sick a lot easier too.
The lesson from all this? Get sleep. Your mind and body will love you for it. So will your stress radar.
Develop Better Sleeping Habits
What if you can’t sleep because you’re stressed? Here are some tips for getting healthier sleep and reducing stress:
- Identify and challenge stress-producing thoughts around sleep. Are you having trouble sleeping because you’re worried about all the work you’ll have to do the next day? Don’t. Instead, take a deep breath and relax. Rewrite that thought in your head. Instead of thinking “I have to sleep now; otherwise I’ll be a train wreck tomorrow!” tell yourself, “Even if I lose some sleep tonight, I’ll still be okay. I can get through tomorrow.” If thinking about certain things is preventing you from falling asleep, try writing it down. Make a to-do list for the following day so you stop worrying that you’ll forget.
- Make your bed a tranquil place. Your bed should be associated with relaxation and sleep, not a place where you constantly feel stressed out or worried. Avoid doing work on your bed. Instead, do stress-relieving activities such as reading a book or listening to some tranquil music.
- Establish a sleep routine. Go to bed and get up at roughly the same time every day, including weekends. This helps your body better adjust to your circadian rhythm. It also makes it easier to get the correct amount of sleep that you need.
- Do light exercise during the day. Doing exercise right before bedtime isn’t a good idea; exercise pumps up your endorphins (adrenaline) and makes you stay awake. But studies have shown that mild exercise during the day – such as a light jog or some yoga – will help with insomnia.
- If you still can’t sleep, don’t stress. If you find yourself laying in bed wide-awake after fifteen minutes, don’t push yourself. Avoid tossing and turning in frustration or mindlessly counting sheep (unless this actually relaxes you). Instead, sip some warm milk or herbal tea and think about pleasant things. Don’t freak yourself out about not being able to sleep; this will hardly relax you. If you really can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something relaxing. Give yourself at least fifteen minutes of downtime before going back to bed.
Adamson, E. (2002). The everything stress management book. Massachusetts: Adams Media Corporation.
Active Minds at UCLA. (2009). Campaign for sleep! Los Angeles, CA.