Stress - that old, uninvited guest that likes to set up residence in our heads.
What is stress?
Everybody struggles with it from time to time. It may be down to a big exam, a presentation at work or being drafted into giving a speech at your cousin’s wedding. These are known as ‘stressors’ - things that are likely to trigger a stress response.
In small doses, stress can be helpful to us. During a stress response your body releases hormones which can:
- sharpen your senses
- improve focus
- increase your heart rate
- increase your breathing rate
- release glucose for a quick energy boost
Short-term stress, such as that experienced in exam settings or during sporting events is harmless and actually relatively positive! However long-term or chronic stress is a different beast altogether.
Chronic stress is the name given to ongoing stress.
When a person is constantly faced with stressors on a regular basis, their stress response is set off far more than usual. This takes a negative toll on both the body and mind.
Some examples of chronic stressors may include:
- a difficult pregnancy
- taking on too many responsibilities at work
- selling or buying a house
- working through long-term debt
- a divorce or the end of a relationship
How stress can affect your sleep
Chronic stress can have many side effects, including poor mood, irritability and has even been linked to higher incidences of heart attacks and stroke.
But one of the key things it can impact upon is your sleep. In a study by the American Psychological Association, three-quarters of adults suffering from stress-related sleep problems say that it caused an increase in stress and anxiety in their everyday lives. It is easy to see how it can become a self-perpetuating cycle.
How stress can keep you awake
There are several symptoms of stress that impact on our sleep. These can include but are not limited to:
1. Racing mind
Over-thinking is a huge contributing factor to lack of sleep. Many people report that they find it hard to stop worrying about things before going to sleep, leading to periods of wakefulness and heightened levels of anxiety. This state is known as hyperarousal, when your mind and sometimes body cannot seem to enter a resting state.
Stress can cause or exacerbate various types of headache, from tension headaches to full-blown migraines. Trying to get to sleep with one of these can be nearly impossible and is more than likely to disrupt sleep.
3. Muscle pain
Stress can cause a number of physical symptoms, including but not limited to back pain, shoulder and neck pain, jaw pain from clenched teeth and body-wide muscle tension. Therefore getting comfy and relaxed is difficult when every part of your body feels tense. And unluckily for sufferers of Restless Leg Syndrome, their symptoms can be amped up during times of stress - leaving them tossing and turning for hours!
Insomnia is a long-term condition in which a person has difficulty achieving or maintaining sleep. It can be characterised by night-waking, restlessness, deterioration of mood and in extreme cases can even result in visual and auditory hallucinations. Sleep deprivation is often not taken as seriously as it ought to be, and periods of stress can heighten symptoms of insomnia and really take a toll on a person’s life.
Unhelpful ways of coping with stress
We all have our own methods for coping with stress and relaxing, but many of these can have a poor effect on sleep.
In one study, thirty-eight percent of adults said they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress. However, a chocolate binge or late night meal can actually disrupt your sleep even more. Did you know that 100g of dark chocolate contains as much caffeine as half a cup of coffee?
Many people like to have a glass of wine after a tough week at work. In a recent NHS survey, 57% of survey respondents reported drinking alcohol in the past week. Alcohol has been shown to inhibit sleep, lead to night-waking and prevent your body from entering the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep.
Another thing that may help you relax is a good old Netflix binge-session - losing yourself in a story or a film can be a fantastic way of forgetting your worries. The blue light generated by phones, tablets and laptops, however, has been shown to delay the release of sleep hormones and increase alertness, making sleep much harder to come by.
Positive ways of coping with stress
If you engage in any of the habits above, try replacing them with some positive habits which are proven to reduce stress and the negative effects it can have on your sleep.
Many people have heard of the Guatemalan tradition of worry dolls - small handmade dolls which children would speak their troubles to before placing them under the pillow and going to bed. There may actually be something to it!
Taking a notebook and writing out your worries before bed can stop them swirling in your head and making you anxious. Writing down problems or thoughts means that you can be confident you won’t forget them. It’s better to come back to them in the morning after some much-needed rest rather than letting them keep you awake.
Blow off any excess steam and loosen up tense muscles by taking regular exercise during the day. Don’t try to do this too close to bedtime or your elevated heart rate and warm temperature are likely to keep you awake, but around 3 - 4 hours before sleep will be fine.
An important one for the chronic over-workers. Banish the sleep-stealing blue light and turn off your devices at least two hours before you want to go to sleep. Any emails or calls can more than likely wait till morning.
Resist the urge to binge on a boxset too. Try reading a book or listening to a soothing podcast to lower your heart rate and prepare you for sleep.
Meditation and breathing exercises
Another way to regulate the heart rate and clear the mind is meditation. Undertaken before bed, it’s an excellent opportunity to clear your mind and get your body ready for a sleep state. There are several mindfulness and meditation apps on the market if you’re not sure how to begin.
The NHS also has a recommended breathing exercise specifically for those dealing with stress, if you’d like to keep your phone out of it to minimise blue light exposure.
We hope that these techniques might help you, whatever short or long-term stressors you may be dealing with. Remember: everybody experiences stress at some point, so never feel as though you’re alone. Ask your friends and family - they may have some methods for coping with stress that we haven’t thought of!