The Relationship Between Sleep and Stress: It’s a Two-Way Street

Sleep and stress are closely related, with one having an impact on the other. This relationship between sleep and stress goes both directions: it can be difficult to deal with everyday stresses if you’re unable to get enough quality sleep on a regular basis, but unresolved stress can interfere with your ability to get the quantity and quality of sleep you need to be prepared to conquer your days.

Because of how sleep and stress influence each other, it’s easy to see how stress can seem out of control, caused by a never-ending cycle of high stress and poor sleep. Fortunately, there are many different ways you can work to improve your sleep and deal with life’s inevitable stressors.

Healthy sleep is helpful for managing stress

Over the years we’ve come to realize that sleep isn’t just a period where we shut down, like turning off a computer. It’s actually a very important time for our brain and body to do some much needed housekeeping. In order to manage all of the challenges we’re presented with in our days, we need adequate time on a daily basis to rest, recover, and prepare for the coming day. If you don’t allow yourself enough time to allow sleep to do its job, you can feel off during your day, because of changes in how your thinking works—from increases in how threatening and negative common things feel, to decreases in empathy and emotional regulation, to disruptions in your fear and reward systems.

When it comes to stress it seems there are a few important roles that sleep serves. The most obvious relationship between sleep and stress may be dreams. During rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep is when we tend to dream most vividly. While the purpose of dreams isn’t known for certain, it seems that the strong emotions we feel and complex storylines playing out during our dreams are an indication that our brains are solving complex problems.

Research in human and animal experiments suggests that REM sleep is essential for emotion regulation and learning. Because longer cycles of REM sleep typically occur later in the sleep period, it’s essential to allow adequate opportunity each day to allow your brain the time it needs to get enough REM sleep.

However, we don’t only sleep to remember, but we also sleep to forget. Various stages of sleep help in this process. In addition to the learning and problem solving discussed above, REM also seems to be important in balancing the strength of connections between emotions (particularly stressful ones) and memories.

The other major period of sleep (non-REM) also seems to be an important time for clearing out the “junk” from the day. This means not only washing away the waste products required to make memories, but also forgetting memories that are not important enough to keep. This process of strengthening connections and putting essential memories into long-term storage is balanced with wiping the slate clean for the next day, and occurs in cycles throughout your sleep. It’s important that you allow enough time for these cycles to play out naturally.

Stress can impact sleep

Even if you realize the importance of sleep in helping you deal with stress, it can sometimes be difficult “to just sleep on it” when your stress is keeping you up. If you’re like most people, you’ve experienced the consequences of unresolved stress on your sleep quality, whether it’s difficulty falling or staying asleep, experiencing light, fitful, restless sleep, or lying awake with your mind racing. Everyone has the occasional poor night’s sleep, and some deal with such difficulties on a regular basis.

So what’s at the heart of stress’s impact on your ability to get a sound sleep? Both physical and psychological aspects of undesirable stress can have adverse effects.

When stressed (in both healthy and unhealthy ways) your body responds by activating the autonomic nervous system, which is basically the part of your nervous system that controls all of your body’s “autopilot” functions like keeping your heart beating or managing your digestive system.

When stressed, your nervous system switches from a “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) state into a “fight or flight” (sympathetic) state. This revved up state can be subtle, but often shows up in increased heart rate, blood pressure, breathing frequency, and other physical signals. When your body is activated like this, it can be hard to settle down into the relaxed state necessary for a sound sleep.

You also have to consider your mental reaction to stress. Our brains are wired to solve problems, but the challenges that cause stress are often a bit more complicated, taking quite a bit of time to sort out, often without a straightforward answer…or even no right answer at all. Because of this, your brain may go into overdrive trying to think through solutions.

However, it’s important to recognize that this is a normal process for your brain. For example, have you ever been stumped by a problem only to have the answer come to you in an “Aha!” moment at a completely random time after you’ve moved on to something else? This is your brain doing its job in the background. But, when you have to listen in on a racing mind, it can be difficult to fall asleep.

Breaking the cycle

It can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to improving sleep. Sometimes the first step is determining whether stress is affecting you and your sleep. Awareness of the connection between what goes on during your day and how well you’re sleeping can go a long way in helping you identify whether or not you need to work on your stress levels and/or sleep.

If you find that stress is interfering with getting a sound sleep, you can work on establishing some routines that address the two main consequences discussed above: physical and mental. Starting and sticking to routines that calm the body and quiet the mind can help you prepare for getting the sleep your body and brain need to tackle life’s stressors with more resilience.

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