The Stress-Sleep Connection: Here’s Why Your Worries Are Keeping You Up At Night
Feeling stressed, run down, anxious and struggling to sleep? You’re not alone. According to a survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of adults in the UK have experienced stress in the past year – with almost a quarter of them unsurprisingly feeling sleep-deprived as a result.
While it’s no secret that one of the most common side effects of stress can be insomnia, it can be hard to understand why. What is it that causes our minds to race and overthink the second we get a quiet moment to reflect, away from the hustle and bustle of the day? And what can we do to better our sleep situation, no matter what we’ve got going on? We’ve got the low-down.
How stress affects sleep: the science
When we experience a stressful event or time in general, our body’s natural response is to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is known as the ‘stress hormone’, and is responsible for triggering our fight or flight response. This response is a primal instinct, designed to keep us safe in dangerous situations by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing.
However, when we experience chronic stress, our cortisol levels remain elevated constantly, which can interfere with our ability to fall asleep - and stay that way. Because, essentially, we are remaining alert, on the ‘lookout’ for danger. Cortisol also suppresses the production of a hormone called melatonin – which is responsible for regulating our sleep-wake cycle.
Stress can also lead to racing thoughts, intense worry, anxiety and depression – all of which can make it difficult to relax enough to fall into a slumber. Not to mention the toll stress can take on us physically, which can make it even harder still to get comfortable in bed and stay asleep throughout the night.
Studies have shown that stress can have a significant impact on our sleep quality and quantity. According to a report by the Sleep Health Foundation, people who experience high levels of stress are more likely to have trouble falling asleep, wake up more frequently throughout the night and feel less rested in the morning. It has also been found that chronic stress can lead to an increased risk of sleep disorders, such as insomnia or sleep apnoea.
Rituals to help you relax before bedtime
The good news? There are some things you can do to help yourself when it comes to catching some Z’s when you’re feeling stressed out:
Establish a regular sleep routine
Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help regulate your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. This can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.
Create a relaxing bedtime routine
Engaging in relaxing activities before bed, such as reading a book, taking a warm bath with some sense-calming oils or practising meditation or deep breathing exercises can help your mind and body prepare you for sleep.
Limit your pre-bedtime screen time
The blue light emitted from electronic devices can interfere with your body’s production of melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep. Try to limit your exposure to electronic devices for at least an hour before you go to bed.
Exercise can help reduce stress and improve sleep quality. However, it’s best to avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime, as this can interfere with your ability to fall asleep.
Practice good sleep hygiene
Creating a comfortable sleep environment, such as keeping your bedroom cool and dark, can help to promote restful sleep. It’s also important to avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine close to bedtime as these substances can interfere with sleep quality.