Why Can’t I Sleep When I’m Stressed?

April 2, 2021

You’re lying awake, again, unable to unwind, plagued by stress and ensnared by anxious thoughts. The hours tick by as you try to will yourself to sleep, but to no avail. Like today and so many days before, tomorrow will be overshadowed by fatigue, sluggishness, and difficulty concentrating.

If this sounds familiar—you’re not alone. Stress and sleep are inextricable, and the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic uncertainty have made this connection even more clear. According to Cedars Sinai,

“About 41-56 percent of people have experienced sleep disturbances during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to recent studies in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. That’s up from pre-pandemic rates of around 14-25 percent.”

While stress isn’t the only thing keeping people awake at night during the pandemic, it’s certainly a contributing factor.

But even before the pandemic, stress kept millions of Americans awake at night. Moreover, people report being more stressed when they don’t get enough Zzzs. What gives? Here is your guide to understanding the relationship between stress and sleep and what to do about it.

Stress Hormones and Signals

When you encounter danger, whether real or perceived, the body sends signals to the amygdala, the brain’s center for emotional processing.

The amygdala then alerts the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), which processes stress. It sounds the alarms, setting off physical and physiological responses throughout the body, beginning with a release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

According to the Mayo Clinic, adrenaline gives your body a surge of power to enable you to fight or flee from danger. It raises the heart rate, blood pressure, and energy levels.

Cortisol, often referred to as “the stress hormone,” is a key player in your body’s stress response. It increases blood sugar (glucose), glucose metabolism, and other functions to give you a burst of energy and prepare the body for recovery after the danger has passed.

Per the Mayo Clinic, cortisol also curbs functions that may impede your fight-or-flight response. That hormone impedes the digestive and reproductive system and hampers growth processes, and affects the immune system.

How the Body Responds to Stress

Stress can affect multiple body parts and systems in both the short and long term.

The hormone surge prompts the heart to beat faster and lungs to work harder to deliver oxygen-rich blood to essential parts of the body quickly. This process can raise your blood pressure and make breathing difficult, particularly if you have a respiratory ailment like asthma or emphysema.

Stress impacts the digestive system as well. As Healthline explains, the liver produces extra blood sugar to boost the body’s short-term fuel supply. According to the site, this, combined with the rush of stress hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate, can cause digestive issues, such as acid reflux, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, or stomachache.

Health Risks and the Long-term Impact of Stress

A short period of stress may not have significant effects because the body resets to “normal” after the threat passes. However, chronic stress and stress symptoms can wreak havoc on many parts of the body.

The musculoskeletal system is a common source of trouble for chronic stress sufferers. When muscles remain in a tense, guarded state for a long time, it can cause tension and migraine headaches and shoulder, back, and neck pain. Chronic pain can also prompt the release of more stress hormones, creating a vicious circle.

While the immediate respiratory effects of stress might not be troublesome for people without respiratory conditions, it can be dangerous for people with some disorders.

Research has also found acute stress can trigger asthma attacks and, in people with some anxiety disorders, may prompt panic attacks, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Chronic or acute stress can also exacerbate conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Chronic stress is also notoriously hard on the cardiovascular system. Severe, potentially life-threatening conditions and events, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), stroke, and heart attack, can occur because of chronic or extreme stress.

Chronic stress can influence neurons and bacteria in the gut, causing difficulties including pain, heartburn, diarrhea or constipation, bloating, and acid reflux.

Research also indicates a strong connection between the brain and the gut. Chronic stress may contribute to or exacerbate conditions such as depression and anxiety. While stress does not cause stomach ulcers (a common misconception), it may aggravate ulcers’ symptoms.

Prolonged stress impacts the nervous system as well. It can lead to overall wear-and-tear on the body, decreased immune system efficiency, increased risk of illness, and slower healing.

According to Healthline, while the initial stress response can boost testosterone, it can decrease sex drive long-term. It can also affect menstruation, causing intense premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and irregular or heavy periods. It may also reduce fertility and exacerbate symptoms of menopause.

Chronic stress can influence a person’s dietary habits, too, leading to weight loss or, more often, gain. For people who struggle with overeating, emotional eating, or eating disorders, this can be particularly problematic and may lead to dangerous weight changes.

The Connection Between Stress and Sleep

While you’re at rest, the brain and body perform essential functions, including storing memories, repairing cells, and disposing of cellular waste. Even slight sleep deprivation can significantly impact your ability to function.

According to the APA, many people do not get enough sleep, and stress is one of the leading reasons. Furthermore, being in a constant state of high alert can exhaust the body and mind, making the effects of insomnia even more taxing.

The APA’s Stress in America survey found about 42 percent of American adults report their sleep quality is fair or poor and 43 percent said stress impacts their ability to fall asleep or stay asleep. Many people also expressed their stress levels increase when they sleep less, and 37 percent reported feeling tired or fatigued because of stress.

In February 2021, SleepMoment sponsored a survey of 400 American adults. Fifteen percent of respondents reported being “very stressed,” meaning they rated their stress level over the previous month as 9/10 or 10/10.

Of those who were “very stressed,” 8.2 percent said they regularly take three hours or more to fall asleep. These respondents were about four times more likely to report that lack of sleep impacted their productivity than those who were less stressed.

About 10-30 percent of American adults have insomnia or persistent difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. While insomnia is treatable, if unaddressed, it can contribute to a host of health problems, including sleep apnea, which can further disrupt sleep and jeopardize health.

Curating a Bedtime Routine

Sleep experts say creating (and sticking to) a bedtime routine can help you fall asleep faster and sleep better. Some factors to consider incorporating into your nighttime regimen include:

  • Guided Sleep Meditation– Research suggests meditation is a great way to reduce stress and improve sleep. You can use apps, like Aura or Headspace, or find videos on YouTube.
  • Limit Screen Time– Electronics can be sources of stress, whether you’re scrolling through the news or checking email. The light from screens can also disrupt your circadian rhythms. Consider unplugging at least 30 minutes before bed each night and reading a book, meditating, or listening to relaxing music instead.
  • Create a Healthy Sleep Environment– Make sure your bedroom is set up for sleep. This includes quality, supportive bedding, a comfortable temperature, quiet, and darkness. Consider blackout curtains or a sleep mask if you live in an area prone to nighttime light pollution. Pleasant, relaxing smells, like lavender, in the form of a diffuser or a few drops of oil on your pillow, may also promote relaxation.
  • Set a Schedule– Try to go to sleep and wake up at consistent times, even on weekends. This helps the body form a habit. Limit naps, as these can make it more difficult to sleep at night.

Lifestyle Changes for Better Sleep

Your habits during the day can affect your nights as well. Here are a few tips:

  • Make Time to Move– Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day every day, whether that’s walking, swimming, weightlifting, or doing yoga. Just be careful not to do intense activities close to bedtime, as this may make it difficult to wind down. Research has found daily exercise can have numerous positive effects, from sleep quality to body composition and mood.
  • Eat Right– Like exercise, diet also influences numerous facets of health. Try to eat a balanced, nutrient-rich diet primarily consisting of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. Avoid drinking right before bed and cut down on caffeine if you think it may be keeping you up at night. Try not to eat too late either, as it can be challenging to fall asleep while digesting a meal.
  • Get Outside– Sunlight is essential and helps the body produce vitamin D, a crucial nutrient with a role in immune system support, energy, and mood. It also helps the body’s internal clock function properly. Try to get outside for at least 30 minutes a day. If you live in an area without much sun, consider investing in a UV lamp.

Natural Stress Relief Remedies

Mother Nature has some tricks up her sleeve as well. Try these natural stress relief remedies:

  • CBD– Evidence suggests CBD and CBG, two of more than 100 cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, may help people fall asleep faster and experience higher-quality sleep. These compounds do not produce a “high” like their cousin, THC, so you don’t have to worry about any late-night munchies.
  • Essential Oils– Terpenes are a naturally occurring compound that gives many plants their distinctive scents and flavors. They can also provide a host of health benefits for people. Often, they are used in the form of essential oils. The most commonly used essential oil for sleep is lavender, which can promote relaxation and reduce stress.
  • Kava– Kava is a root found in the Pacific Islands that indigenous communities have used for centuries. Research indicates it may promote sleep, reduce anxiety and stress, and promote muscle relaxation, according to the University of Michigan.
  • Ashwagandha– Ashwagandha is another ancient medicinal plant that indigenous societies have used for thousands of years to ease pain and inflammation. Recent research also suggests it may reduce stress and anxiety and promote better sleep.

Stress and Sleep: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Stress and sleep are inextricably linked. When you’re exhausted, you’re far more likely to feel tense, irritable, and depressed. These feelings can make sleep even more challenging. Fortunately, you can break the cycle with stress management.

Whether it’s exercising more and eating healthier, investing in a new mattress, or trying supplements, there are many tools to help you enjoy more restful nights and peaceful days.