Sleeping well during periods of stress and tension is often a challenge, although we need sleep particularly badly during these times. Why does stress have such a major impact on the way we sleep? And how can you make sure that you’re still getting plenty of shuteye? Sarah Takens, a psychologist at OpenUp, explains and shares some great tips that you can try today.
When you experience (prolonged periods of) stress, it affects the way all the important functions in your body operate, including those connected to sleep. Why is that the case? And what can you do about it?
The effects of stress on how you sleep
Stress pumps your blood full of cortisol and this keeps you alert and more awake. Psychologist Sarah Takens explains: “We can trace stress back to prehistoric times as a reaction to acute danger. It’s really handy if you have to watch out for bears, for example, but not so much when you’re worrying about the presentation you need to give in the morning.”
When we experience a lot of stress and lie in bed at night with worries racing through our minds, our bodies react with a fight or flight response. Your body is “on”, ready to fend off any potential danger. If you’re trying to sleep, what you need is for your body to switch into “off” mode.
“Cortisol plays a major role here,” explains Sarah. “If your cortisol levels are low, your body knows that it’s ‘safe’ to go to sleep and it starts producing melatonin.
When there’s too much cortisol in your bloodstream, your body doesn’t produce enough melatonin to allow you to sleep well. In particular, too much stress late at night can cause you a lot of issues.”
Tip: Why do we sleep? And why is a lack of sleep so dangerous? Until recently, scientists couldn’t really answer this question, but in the last twenty years, there has been an explosion of new research that has proven illuminating.
In the book ‘Why We Sleep’ brain scientist and sleep expert Mathew Walker explains why sleep and dreams are a vital part of life. It’s a must-have for any nightstand.
Why do you sleep so badly?
Are you struggling with sleepless nights? Then you’re not the only one, 35.2% of all adults in the U.S. report sleeping an average of less than seven hours per night.
Sarah also sees this at the practice: “Often you’ll see a vicious cycle occur as the result of stress and sleeping problems. Somebody who gets very anxious in the evenings and can’t sleep may get stressed by the idea that ‘they need to sleep’ because they’ve got a busy day in the morning. As a result, they start thinking that they won’t be able to perform well the following day, which gets them even more stressed and makes sleep even less likely.”
A lack of reflection during the day can also cause you to lie awake at night or have trouble falling asleep. Sarah: “When you’re always busy during the day and don’t have much time to think about and reflect on the things you’re experiencing, you may start suppressing your thoughts and feelings.
Then, as soon as everything goes quiet in the evening, it all comes to the surface in the form of anxious thoughts and inner turmoil. This makes sleeping through the night very difficult. Essentially, your night becomes a reflection of your day.”
Read also: How to Turn Stress and Fear into a Good Thing
What should you not do if you want to sleep well?
If so many of us are sleeping poorly, what are we doing ‘wrong’? Being too stressed is the cause, but it’s more than just stress, Sarah explains.
“Often at the end of a long day, you want to do a bit of exercise to clear your head, but anything too intense isn’t really advisable before bed. It switches your body into active mode and starts up all your bodily processes again, which actually need to be decreasing while you sleep.”
Alcohol is another cause. Having a drink to relax and help you sleep better at the end of a busy day seems like a wonderful solution, but make no mistake: This actually negatively affects your ability to sleep.
“Alcohol has a major impact on the quality of your sleep. It means that your liver has to work hard at night to break down all the toxins and, as a result, you wake up feeling less well-rested. You also don’t sleep as deeply or as well.”
Then there are those classic ‘mistakes’ that we all make from time to time despite knowing that they aren’t good for our sleep: screens, too much light, and caffeine.
Sarah: “When we’re exposed to too much light in the evenings, it interferes with our ability to produce melatonin. This hormone is extremely important when we’re trying to fall asleep. Caffeine also keeps your body awake and remember: You don’t just find it in coffee, it’s also in certain types of tea, chocolate and soft drinks.”
Sleeping better even when you’re stressed
Of course, the question is: What can you do to sleep better, even when you’re experiencing a lot of stress? Sarah shares some tips you can start using today.
1. Make sure you’re getting plenty of rest throughout the day
“Your night is a reflection of your day. So, during the day, make sure you’re also taking plenty of time to rest, don’t put it off until you’re finally ready to sleep. Exhausting yourself in the hopes that you’ll immediately fall into a deep sleep isn’t always a good idea.”
2. Maintain good sleep hygiene
“Make sure you’ve got a nice, comfy bed, that you’re in a peaceful environment, and that there isn’t too much mess around you. You need to make sure your bedroom isn’t too light, but for some people, it can’t be too dark either. Smell also has a major influence over your ability to get to sleep, so make sure you’re sleeping somewhere that smells nice.”
3. Let go of the idea of getting eight hours of sleep
“Try not to get too attached to the idea that you need exactly eight hours of sleep – it’s not always the case. It varies depending on the person and the day as to how much sleep you need. If you’re sleeping less, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t well-rested. So, let go of this idea.”
4. Don’t lie awake staring at the ceiling
“If you wake up at night and start worrying, don’t stay in bed for hours. Instead, get up and leave the room. View your bedroom as a place for sleeping and try not to do any non-sleep-related activities in there. If you’re lying awake, get out of bed, write down your thoughts and then go back to bed.”
5. Keep a sleep diary
“This will give you more insight into your sleeping patterns and anything that might be causing you to sleep less well. Look back at the end of the month and see how often you actually slept badly. You can then try to figure out if there are any common threads. What was it that caused you to sleep so badly? And what can you do about that?”
6. Do a meditation or breathing exercise
“A lovely and really effective way to unwind before going to bed is by doing a meditation or breathing exercise. This immediately calms your nervous system and your brain, helps to reduce your stress levels and invites you to deeply relax.”
Do you have any questions about your personal situation or would you like to learn more about improving your sleep? We’d be happy to help. Book a no-obligation introductory session with one of our psychologists.