How Stress Messes with Your Sleep (and What to Do About It)
Stress: We all have it from time to time. Regardless of the cause (the holidays, work, family, we could go on and on), stress can have a serious negative impact on sleep. Stress-induced sleep disruption is a vicious cycle: You lie awake at night, tossing and turning, only to leave bed the next morning feeling totally sleep deprived—and even more stressed.
In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 43% of participants said that stress has caused them to lose sleep at night. The majority of those who reported high stress (68%) said they felt sluggish and lazy, vs. 36% of those with low stress. Fifty-nine percent of those with high stress said they felt irritable, vs. 20% of those with low stress, and 27% said they felt sad or depressed vs. 2% of those with low stress.
Here's what we know about the link between stress and sleep, plus expert strategies for managing stress so that you get a better night's rest.
The connection between stress and sleep
Most of us don't need science to tell us that in general, stress is pretty unhealthy. But there is ample evidence that stress can contribute to a variety of illnesses, including common sleep disorders. In a study published in the journal Experimental Neurobiology, researchers reported that excessive stress activates the defenses of your central nervous system, which can cause chemical reactions in the body, such as the release of the stress hormone cortisol, that lead to insomnia.
In another study, this one reported in the journal Sleep Medicine, 50 participants kept a sleep/wake diary for 42 days and answered daily questions about sleep and stress. The results showed that bedtime stress was the biggest predictor of sleep quality.
But the connection between stress and sleep isn't a one-way street—stress doesn't just cause poor sleep, poor sleep can cause stress, too. Researchers from the University of California Berkeley found that sleep deprivation increases anxiety by firing up the areas of the brain responsible for anticipatory feelings.
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How to prevent stress from ruining your sleep
There are steps you can take to curb stress so that it doesn't mess with your sleep.
Create a relaxing bedroom environment. First thing first, set yourself up for success by ensuring your bedroom is the optimal sleep zone. Start by cleaning up your room, since research from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that people who are at risk of hoarding experience poor sleep. The study authors explained that for those who have cluttered bedrooms, any existing risk they had for depression and stress increases as their sleep quality decreases.
You should also make your bed in the morning, since seeing a neat bed contributes to better sleep. Respondents to a survey by the National Sleep Foundation said that they were more likely to get a good night's sleep if they made their bed every day. Keep your bedroom cool and dark too. The ideal bedroom temperature for sleep is between 60° and 67° Fahrenheit, so lower the thermostat—and throw on a sleep mask to block out any disruptions caused by light. A weighted or "heavy" blanket may also help.
Make time for a morning workout. Scheduling in some time to exercise will ensure you sleep more soundly. A study published in the journal Sleep found that those who had higher levels of physical activity slept more efficiently. They didn't necessarily sleep longer, but they spent less time lying in bed awake. That might have something to do with the fact that exercise is great for de-stressing—it reduces levels of adrenaline and cortisol, two stress hormones, and stimulates endorphin production (endorphins are mood-boosting chemicals in your brain). The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends not exercising too close to your bedtime, though, because this can leave you feeling energized. Instead, opt for a morning or afternoon gym session. (Learn more about how morning workouts help you sleep.)
Try meditating. One of the best ways to beat stress? Meditation. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine suggested that meditation could calm stress and stress-related conditions like anxiety. Some of the stress-reduction strategies that worked for study participants included techniques that emphasized mindfulness and concentration—being aware of your body and paying attention to where you are. Here's an easy guide to meditation for beginners from non-profit Mindful.
See a therapist. Sometimes there's only so much you can do at home to alleviate stress. If you find that you're consistently stressed, even after taking steps to nix your worries, don't be afraid to visit a professional. A licensed therapist is trained to offer stress management techniques that are tailored to you.
For more tips for relieving stress before bedtime, here are 10 nighttime activities to help you relax.