Stress and sleep quality are intrinsically linked. Research has shown stress impacts the quality and duration of your sleep. This in turn can severely affect your physical and mental health as sleep is a vital function for your body.
Stress affects sleep in different ways. Individuals who are constantly stressed spend a lot of time thinking about their personal and professional responsibilities. Young adults are typically stressed about their academics, which could disrupt their sleep patterns. Chronic stress makes it difficult to fall asleep and also causes disturbed sleep. Not getting enough sleep stimulates your body’s stress response and leads to high cortisol levels, which causes further sleep disruptions.
Sleep is also essential for the development of your learning and memory skills. Sleep deprivation for a long time could severely affect your metabolism and endocrine system. In this article, we look at the relationship between sleep and stress.
The Sleep and Stress Cycle
While stress is usually linked with negative connotations, it’s a critical physiological function that’s evolved over millennia to allow humans to deal with potentially threatening situations. In humans, stress causes the autonomic nervous system to release certain hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – vital for survival during the initial stages of evolution.
These hormones lead to a spike in blood pressure and heart rate, tense your muscles, and cause rapid breathing. It also leads to higher levels of alertness, decreased sensitivity to pain, and slowed digestion. All of these changes are intended to help a person face a challenge head-on or escape to safety. But in the present day, situations that are not strictly a threat to your survival could trigger a similar response, such as challenges or issues at work or in your relationships.
Even in modern life, stress can play a positive role. The sudden but fleeting feelings of acute or short-term stress help avoid accidents while driving and offer motivation to prepare for an important presentation or exam. However, exposure to prolonged and repeated stressors such as relationship issues or financial worries leads to chronic stress, which can take a significant toll on health. This is why it is important to identify and address common triggers and sources of stress in daily life.
Stress and sleep have an interdependent relationship. While high stress levels can have a profound impact on the quality and quantity of sleep, poor or inadequate sleep could also lead to an abnormal response to stressful situations. It’s critical to understand this cyclical relationship between stress and sleep to overcome its effects.
Regularly coming across stressful situations – whether in your personal or professional environment – could send your sleep cycle into a tizzy. It impacts your body’s internal clock that sends signals to your brain to prepare you for sleep or waking up. When you go through stressful situations during the day, the chances of you having trouble sleeping or having disturbed sleep become higher.
Stress can also impact the type and content of your dreams. Your body releases cortisol when you’re stressed. This prepares you to take appropriate action when faced with a stressful situation – known as the “fight or flight” response. That’s why it’s also known as the stress hormone. Cortisol levels impact your sleep-wake patterns. They’re usually high during the day, when you need it to stay alert and carry out tasks, while night time usually sees a reduction of cortisol levels in your system, preparing you for sleep.
Consistent high levels of cortisol could create an imbalance in your system that could keep you in a state of awareness for a long time, thus preventing you from sleeping. Research has shown high cortisol levels in the evening in those with insomnia. Some studies have linked a case of short-term insomnia to a particular stressful event that prevents you from sleeping due to fear of the potential threat. The activation of the “fight or flight” response leads to physiological changes that make it difficult for you to fall asleep. These include:
- Tensing of the muscles: Your body’s first reaction when it senses a threatening situation is the tensing of the muscles. All the major muscle groups in your body become taut when your body senses a potential threat. But on the flip side, too much tension means your muscles cannot relax enough for you to fall asleep.
- Spike in your heart rate: This is another common occurrence when you’re stressed. Your heart beats faster because your body pumps more blood into major muscle groups to prepare you against the threat. This is in stark contrast to your heart’s activity when you’re sleeping – when your heartbeat is much lower and breathing more relaxed.
- Impact on the digestive system: Highly stressful events or chronic stress have a lasting impact on your digestive system and can lead to diarrhea and constipation, which could in turn affect your sleep (8).
Research has shown that lack of sleep affects other aspects of your life – both personal and professional – to a large degree. Some studies over the years suggest that those who regularly get less than eight hours of sleep:
- Report higher stress levels in recent months
- Are generally more irritable and angry
- Frequently feel overwhelmed by situations around them
- Lack interest, enthusiasm, and energy in life
- Tend to skip exercises more often
- Frequently lose their temper or yell at their children
- Lose patience or show signs of irritation at their spouse or partners
- Feel more sluggish or lazy
- Have low concentration levels (7)
Stress and sleep have a cyclical relationship. High levels of stress could lead to disturbed or inadequate sleep, while, on the other hand, incomplete sleep could make you more stressed at seemingly trivial events and incidents. It’s vital to understand how sleep and stress are related to overcome this distressing cycle.
One good thing to come out of all this is that while higher stress levels could impact your sleep patterns, research has found the reverse also to be true. A study found that the habit of ruminating on past events or specific incidents is a major factor that affects sleep quality. Learning and managing your triggers to stress could help enhance your sleep quality. Research also shows that sleep quality improves right after a temporary stressor is eliminated.
Does Work Stress Affect Sleep?
The short answer to this is Yes. Research has established that stress from work affects your sleep patterns. Constant stress at work usually spills over to your personal life. This typically manifests as continuously thinking about work situations and events when you drive, eat, or spend time with family and friends. This constant rumination becomes more evident when you try to sleep, but aren’t able to do so (1).
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, stress competes with sleep as it activates the same parts of your brain that’s used when you sleep. In most cases, stress is the winner, and leads to inadequate sleep (1).
Work stress can lead to insomnia or disturbed sleep that may last anytime from a few days to a few weeks. In some cases, you may also have other symptoms such as anxiety and tension, which are all indications of a condition called adjustment insomnia. One of the most common aspects of this condition is poring over the same thoughts repeatedly. You may find yourself thinking about a particular incident while you’re lying on the bed and sometimes, you may even have dreams about your work (called sleepwork) (1).
The nature of the job stress could affect your sleep in several ways. According to a 2007 study, too much work may lower the quality of your sleep. An uncertain role at work was linked to difficulty falling asleep or sleep not giving you the kind of rest it’s supposed to (called non-restorative sleep). If your job involves doing the same thing repeatedly, you’re likely to be unable to fall asleep or remain asleep for a long time (1).
A 2005 study involving 8,770 Japanese participants linked high job stress to insomnia. The study included men and women and was carried out over one year. According to the study, anything less than six hours was classified as inadequate sleep (2).
Another 2007 study found that insomnia is related to three main types of job stressors.
- A work environment that comes with high demands
- A relatively low personal influence over decisions made in the work environment
- A job that needs high levels of compromise
The study involved 1,873 participants and was carried out over one year (3). So yes, while job stress does affect sleep, the types of stress that you carry over from your work could affect different aspects of your sleep.
How Does Stress Affect REM Sleep?
Stress could also affect the stage of sleep called rapid eye movement (REM sleep), the deepest stage of sleep when you get most of your dreams. This sleep stage is also involved in managing your emotions and strengthening your memory. Constant stress increases the duration of REM sleep. Research has linked this to the genes that cause cell death and survival.
Frequent disturbances in REM sleep could also deny your body the deep sleep it needs to carry out necessary reparative functions that could take a severe toll in the long run, both mentally and physically. Your body goes through specific routines during REM and non-REM sleep.
- Breathing patterns: During non-REM sleep, your breathing rhythms are typically slower and deeper. On the other hand, during REM sleep, breathing pace quickens and becomes erratic.
- Heart rate: Your heart rate begins to drop during non-REM sleep and gathers pace during REM sleep.
- Muscle activity: REM sleep also affects muscle activity. A majority of your muscle groups are relaxed during non-REM sleep. But during REM sleep, they are in a state called atonia (paralysis). Your body does this so that you don’t act out any of your dreams. The only muscle parts that remain active during REM sleep are those in your respiratory system and your eyes. Your eye muscles keep fluttering during REM sleep, and hence the name.
Sleep deprivation due to stress could put your whole sleep patterns out of sync. For example, if you don’t get enough sleep, your body tends to make up for the lack of rest by increasing the duration of REM sleep. This could cause unusually high brain activity that could leave you irritable and lead to other mental conditions such as anxiety and depression (9).
Research has identified the specific effects of stress on REM sleep. According to studies, stressors led to signs of depression and an increase in the duration of REM sleep and a surge in brain activity that’s usually attributed to REM sleep. The study also found that stressors did not have much of an impact on non-REM sleep. According to the study, the modifications in the REM sleep behavior were closely linked to the lack of regulation of the stress hormone cortisol. Mild stress also has a deep impact on gene expression in the brain, that could modify several critical brain functions (10).
How Does Stress Affect Sleep Hormones?
The endocrine system consists of several glands (organs) located in different parts of your body and are responsible for producing and releasing hormones that regulate many vital functions including sleep. The three main glands in the endocrine system are:
- Pituitary gland
- Adrenal gland
Together, these glands are responsible for producing and releasing hormones that control many vital activities and are sometimes collectively called the HPA axis (5) (6). The activity of several hormones change depending on the light and dark cycle of the day, which also governs your sleep patterns. Your sleep cycle and the circadian rhythm have a deep impact on the synthesis and activity of many hormones such as:
- Growth hormone
Your body has an intrinsic clock that it follows to release specific hormones to manage and carry out critical functions like metabolizing lipids and glucose. Disturbed sleeping patterns impact your body’s intrinsic mechanisms and are also related to conditions like obesity, insensitivity to insulin, diabetes, and irregular appetite.
Your body’s hormones are the chemical messengers that impact and regulate several processes in your system throughout the day. These include managing your body’s growth, reproduction, stress response, metabolism, and energy production. Your hormone levels are also deeply related to your sleep cycle.
The hormone adrenaline makes you more alert and ready for action, which means high levels of this hormone in your bloodstream would make it difficult for you to fall asleep. That’s why medical experts recommend avoiding stressful activities close to bedtime. On the other hand, there are some hormones that are specifically released when you’re sleeping, like the growth hormone, which regulates your body’s growth and rebuilds tissues.
Other hormones like ghrelin and leptin monitor your appetite and are dependent on your sleep. Ghrelin is responsible for stimulating hunger and usually peaks right before meal times and decreases after you’ve had a meal. Leptin signals satiety, which gives you a sense of fullness after you’ve had food. Inadequate sleep may alter ghrelin and leptin levels and give you an urge to eat more than you usually do.
Activities of other hormones such as insulin, cortisol, and prolactin are also sleep-dependent. Irregular or sporadic sleep patterns have a profound impact on the impact of these hormones. While insulin is critical to manage your blood sugar levels, having adequate cortisol in your system prepares you for the coming day and its activities.
Lack of sleep affects prolactin levels in your body, which may weaken your immune system. Other effects of low prolactin levels include low concentration levels and an increased craving for food.
Melatonin regulates your body’s sleep wake cycle. Your body typically produces more melatonin during dark hours, thus signaling your brain to prepare for sleep. Melatonin production decreases during the day time. Low melatonin levels are usually linked to disturbed sleep cycles. Many people take melatonin supplements to help them sleep. Research indicates that melatonin has a “chronobiotic” effect, which means that it directly or indirectly affects your body’s circadian clock. This is true for both melatonin produced by your body or through supplements (4).
Stress Related Insomnia
Stress related insomnia is a widely reported condition. Insomnia is defined as a condition that causes a consistent difficulty with sleep onset, sustenance, consolidation, and sleep quality. Even individuals who devote enough time for sleep and have a comfortable location to sleep report having insomnia. This condition usually is symptomized by:
- Drowsiness during the daytime
- Weakening of other senses during waking hours
Research suggests that 10% to 30% of adults have insomnia. Medical experts usually term a condition as insomnia when the symptoms occur at least three times in a week for at least three months. Some of the following constant stressors could cause chronic insomnia:
- Major life changes
- Problems or challenges at work
- Familial issues such as divorces or constant fights at home
- Passing away of a loved one (8)
Too Stressed to Sleep?
The impact of stress on sleep cannot be understated. As compared to a few decades back, adults as well as children are not getting enough sleep. In recent times, sleeping less has given many people a misplaced sense of pride. But the truth could not be farther from this. Several critical functions are dependent on adequate sleep. These include:
- Endocrine function
- Metabolic function
- Tissue and cell repair
Get enough sleep to reduce stress. Research suggests around seven to eight hours of sleep daily is essential for your body. But if you’re too stressed to sleep, you can try some of the following techniques to help you overcome stress and sleep better.
- Avoid binge watching or any electronic activity right before you go to sleep.
- Start winding down your day at least a couple of hours before you hit the bed. This includes staying away from all gadgets a couple of hours before you go to sleep.
- Practice techniques like meditation to help you manage stress and sleep better (12).
- Certain breathing techniques such as the Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY), taught as part of the Happiness Program, improves sleep quality in men and women. Research has shown that the SKY breathing technique may also be effective in treating conditions such as insomnia. According to the study, regular practice of this technique improves sleep quality (11).
- Book a consultation with an expert to understand what you can do to overcome stress and improve your sleep patterns.
About the Author:
Venkat is a freelance writer and an SEO buff. He writes about health & wellness, technology, and finance. He’s also a certified yoga and meditation instructor.
1 – American Academy of Sleep Medicine: “Bring work to bed: the war between stress and sleep.” –
2 – Sleep: ‘Relationships of Occupational Stress to Insomnia and Short Sleep in Japanese Workers.” –
3 – International Journal of Behavioral Medicine: “Psychosocial work stressors for insomnia: a prospective study on 50–60-year-old adults in the working population.” –
4 – International Journal of Endocrinology: “The Impact of Sleep and Circadian Disturbance on Hormones and Metabolism.” –
5 – Cleveland Clinic: “Endocrine system.” –
6 – Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience: “The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis: Development, Programming Actions of Hormones, and Maternal-Fetal Interactions.” –
7 – American Psychological Association: “Stress and sleep.” –
8 – Sleep Foundation: “Stress and Insomnia.” –
9 – Sleep Foundation: “What Happens When You Sleep?” –
10 – PNAS: “REM sleep’s unique associations with corticosterone regulation, apoptotic pathways, and behavior in chronic stress in mice.” –
11 – Sleep and Vigilance: “The Influence of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga on Sleep Quality in Indian Adults: An Open Trial Pilot Study.” –
12 – International Journal of Scientific Research and Reviews: “Effect of Automatic Self Transcending Meditation on mental health by reducing stress and improving sleep in Adults.” –