How Stress Affects Your Sleep

By Emma Judges

We constantly hear that too much stress and not enough sleep can affect your health, but how does it actually work? What is actually happening in the body when we hear that.

Stress is a response to adverse and challenging circumstances in your daily life. Stress can be both mental and physical and is often both. But to be clear, the right amount of stress can be positive. The term hormesis describes this beneficial response from inducing stress. For example, working out at the gym causes stress to the body – but the positive outcome is stronger muscles and metabolic pathways.

Stress can cause the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones can raise the heart rate, preparing the body for immediate action. But when stress levels are chronic, which means they are ongoing, day in, day out, the body doesn’t understand what it is meant to do. Because there is no “off” switch from the stress, the body thinks it is in a constant fight or flight response. This is not a good outcome and this is when things start to go downhill.

Stress can cause anxiety, depression, tension, work mistakes and poor concentration. Physical symptoms of stress can include headaches, fatigue, appetite loss and back pain. Getting a good night of sleep can be hindered by all these symptoms of stress.

Experts recommend to aim for 7-9hrs of sleep a night (depends on age and other factors). Whilst scientists don’t know the exact role of sleep, the research shows that it facilitates a wide range of bodily functions. Muscle repair, concentrations and mental tasks, glucose regulation and energy levels are all affected.

To set yourself up for the best night sleep possible, here are some tips to try:

  • Mindfulness meditation
    • Learning to calm the monkey mind. The aim is to acknowledge your thoughts. Try writing them down to then address the following morning.
    • Learn to meditate – this can be as simple as using an app such as Headspace or Calm
  • Exercise
    • Physical activity can improve mental well by reducing symptoms of anxiety
    • 30min of moderate to high intensity exercise can reduce stress and improve sleep quality
  • Eating a balanced diet, free of processed food
  • Reduce alcohol intake to 3-6 drinks p/week – see post on “Am I A Social Alcoholic?”
  • Lower caffeine consumption. Limit yourself to 2 coffee’s, prior to 2pm. Caffeine can have a 12hr effect.
  • Avoid work late at night. This ticks the box of both reducing device use and calming the mind of work commitments

Always seek the support of a health professional if you are not coping with stress and/or sleep. There are many drug free interventions that have shown to be extremely powerful. If you are interested in speaking with a health coach to discuss your sleep and stress goals, please click here for a free introductory session.