Stress and sleep - what's the link?

Little of us achieve the minimum amount of sleep required of around 7-8 hours a night, and our relationship with a ‘always on’ society is partly to blame. Indeed, respondents from the American Sleep study reported significantly better-quality sleep with lower stress scores, and the opposite being true for those experiencing life stress and psychological distress. More significantly so, our relationship with stress provides psychological and physiological barriers to achieving restful sleep and the feeling of energy and resilience. As with many of the processes that occur in human biology, stress and the lack of sleep which result often exist in a cyclical, mutual relationship which ensures that as your day gets more stressful, your sleep will equally be compromised. Often, individuals find themselves in this never ending cycle which progresses to some form of insomnia (the difficulty to achieve and maintain restful sleep). But is it just us against biology, or can we take steps to put our stress in perspective and separate our stressful day from our restful night?

Most of us have experienced the fight or flight reflex whereby a hefty dose of adrenaline is released into our system, heightening our senses, raising our blood pressure and breathing rate to prepare for combat or fleeing to live another day. This archaic response is an instinctual mechanism we have failed to outgrow, but still has many uses in the modern age. However, the same, perhaps lesser response is provoked in response to stress, which causes cascades of stress hormones like cortisol from the endocrine system. This response is synchronised between the hypothalamus in the brain and the adrenal cortex just above the kidneys, and has a major role in also affecting sleep cycles. Indeed, anxiety and other conditions can be attributed to an ‘over-response’ of these systems to a perceived threat, inducing a physiological response which causes the renowned sweating, dry mouth and shallow, fast breaths. Those with increased stress levels often have heightened cortisol and adrenaline analogues in their blood, and the effect this has on sleep wake cycles is well documented.

An activation of the hypothalamus-adrenal axis (HPA loop) in response to a stressful work meeting, traffic or meeting deadlines has potent, prolonged implications for the rest we may get that night – and even that week. Activation of the HPA loop inhibits restful sleep, REM sleep and effects the deepness of sleep we may experience that evening, meaning we awake the next morning half rested, and potentially feeling more stressed than the day before. With sleep deprivation comes poor memory, reduced capacity for regulation of emotion and even a reduced physical capacity – which can cause havoc in a society which demands high performance and high output at work. However, through conditioning and management strategies, our bodies can be ‘dulled’ to the stressors of every day life and resilience can be built, assuring that we don’t perceive stress as an inanimate stress which provokes all manners of physiological responses.

Indeed, a practice becoming ever more common in the recent years is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a particularly useful practice whereby one focuses on an object or process such as the breath and experiences the simplicity of being present in the moment. So much of the stress of every day life is over processes and events which are in the future, and by grounding ourselves in the present moment, situations become more manageable and grounded to the present. Mindfulness has been used for centuries in ancient cultures and is a strong basis of meditative practices, but can be practiced regularly to experience relief and put stressful situations into perspective. Exercise can be another great way to relieve stress, and the physiological basis to getting rid of ‘excess energy’ from the stress responses throughout the day is well documented. Taking advantage of a heightened arousal from stresses in life through exercise and physical activity allows a sustainable, more positive channel by which to reduce stress – particularly in a world where it is easy to deal with stress in negative ways.

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