Stress And Sleep Are Best Friends

As Founder of International Stress Awareness Week, let me remind you that it has begun and will run until Friday 8th November. 

So, now It is a good time to ask yourself how stressed are you, what does stress do to your body and how can you manage it? If you’re concerned about your stress levels, you might like to take my Stress Test and get an instant readout of your stress score along with tips and tools to help you reduce it.

Stress affects everyone differently but one of the classic signs of stress tends to be a difficulty in sleeping. Stress and sleep are like two best friends. When one suffers, so does the other. But which is the driving force? Sleep or stress?

How does stress affect sleep? 

The increasing use of technology and the pressure to stay connected and ‘active’ on social media platforms are a key factor in sleep deprivation. Also, the extension of the working day into the evening, the stress from work, or taking work home (physically and mentally) can lead to an inability to sleep or switch off.

Eventually, this can lead employees to ‘burnout’. Burnout is a state of exhaustion caused by excessive or prolonged stress. 

What are the key signs your sleep (or lack of) is stress-related?

Ask yourself “when did it start?” Does the sleep problem come and go with the occurrence and disappearance of stress or does it persist at all times? The symptoms below are the result of sleep deprivation. Identifying if and when you began to experience any of these, can help you pinpoint whether your behaviour (as a consequence of lack of sleep) correlates with stressful periods in your life.

  • You feel tired or drowsy at any time during the day.
  • You slur your speech. The front lobe of the brain, which is greatly impacted by sleep deprivation, is associated with your speech.
  • You’re hungrier than usual. Sleep deprivation affects two hormones that regulate our appetite – leptin and ghrelin. When we don’t get enough sleep, the level of leptin (the satiety hormone) increases whilst ghrelin (the hunger hormone) reduces.
  • You’re clumsy. Sleep problems can cause issues with motor skills such as being unsteady on your feet, stumbling, or just being generally careless.
  • You are forgetful: Sleep plays a crucial role in memory consolidation and emotional processing. Sufficient rest is key for cementing what you’ve learned during the day.
  • You are irritable and argumentative, and you might ignore what other people are saying about you concerning this change in mood and/or behaviour. 
  • You find it difficult to concentrate. This may also affect your ability to make quick decisions. The National Sleep Foundation states that even moderately sleep deprived, you can reduce your response rate by 50% whilst a sleep deprived brain can replicate old decision paths without noting how they resulted, leading to the possibility of repeating bad decisions. 
  • You are often sick. An insufficiency of sleep can affect your immune system and can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.
What physiological responses happen when you’re stressed?

Stressor → body & mind respond → fight-or-flight → increased heartbeat, tight muscles and quick breath

This may not be detrimental as a one-off incident, however repeating this day in and day out can lead to burnout. If the fight-or-flight response is activated on a continual basis, it can interfere with bodily systems which can increase vulnerability to disease. This explains the link between stress and an increased risk of heart disease, obesity or a stroke, whilst making you more susceptible to infection and less able to recover effectively. Forbes mentioned a 2018 study by The University of California that found sleep deprivation triggered a 30% anxiety increase in healthy individuals, whilst it is also associated with depression.   

Conversely, how does a lack of sleep contribute to stress levels?

Sleep is a biological need that should not be overlooked. There is no animal that can exist for very long without sufficient sleep, and humans are the only ones unwise enough to try. 

Although we know that stress can lead to a lack of sleep, there is the potential to enter a vicious cycle as sleep can actually influence how much stress you experience. 

It is how you perceive the stress of your life events and your resources to cope with these events that influences your stress levels. 

5) What are your best tips for relieving stress in order to sleep better?

If your insomnia or sleep deprivation is in fact caused by your stress, then learning to manage your stress levels will help you to manage your sleep. The tips below will help you manage your stress levels and guide you towards a good night’s sleep.

  • Relaxation will counter the physiological effects of the fight-or-flight response. Implementing activities or formal relaxation techniques might bring you a sense of relief. Or, simply sitting down for a minute with your eyes closed and thinking about relaxation can help. 
  • Problem-solve – this gives you a step-by-step guide to facing a challenge…

Identify the problem 

Come up with a list of potential solutions

Rank the solutions from best to worst

Create a plan-of-action!

Try out the best-ranked solution 

  • Turn a negative into a positive– you may or may not recognise this pattern…

Chronic stress → a mental filter → you interpret situations negatively, with little or no reason → you doubt your ability to cope under perceived stressors. 

Learn to treat these doubtful statements such as ‘I can’t complete my work by that time’, as one of many possibilities to decrease the negative emotions you experience in response to stressors.

  • Mindfulness encourages you to pay attention to the present moment. Stressors tend to revolve around worries about the future, or over-analysing past actions and decisions. You can focus on being present formally, such as meditation, or informally, such as going for a walk. 

It is important to maximise your chances of having an effective slumber. Make sure you go to sleep at the same time EVERY day and try to get up at the same time too- even on weekends. Stimulants, heavy meals and exercise should be had earlier in the day as these lead to you feeling more energised. Most often it is your phone that’s the biggest culprit- being on it too close to bedtime, or even sleeping with it beside your bed. The TFT digital light from mobile and computer screens can disrupt the sleep-promoting neurons in your brain.

Do yourself a favour and try to create a relaxing routine before going to bed, Ensure the room isn’t too warm or hot, and that it is quiet and dark. However, managing your daily stressors and the way you respond to them will be the ultimate way to start improving your sleep – if in fact your sleep problems are a result of your stress levels. 

If stress is getting in the way of you getting a good night’s sleep, then my 30-minute online Stress Buster Session is the perfect opportunity to discuss your personal and professional challenges in a confidential environment, and receive guidance and tips on how to reduce the stress in your life.

Happy International Stress Awareness Week.

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