March 5, 2024

Here’s How Stress Is Damaging Your Sleep

It’ll come as no surprise that stress can really impact how you sleep (or, more likely, don’t sleep).

But it may be surprising just how many ways sleep can impact your sleep — from behaviors that occur when you finally do get some shut-eye to how many Zzzs you actually get at night.

Below, doctors share all the ways stress could show up when you snooze and what you can do to sleep a little better.

Insomnia

“There’s been quite a bit of research on the effects of stress on sleep. The bulk of the research has primarily focused on insomnia,” said Phil Gehrman, an associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

When someone has insomnia, they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

“And it’s no news to anybody that when you’re under stress, it might be harder to fall asleep, especially at the beginning of the night,” Gehrman said.

While not sleeping well may not sound like a huge deal, it actually is. Insomnia can cause irritability and anxiety regarding bedtime. And, very seriously, a recent study found a link between insomnia and stroke risk.

Nightmares

“If somebody has disrupted sleep, there’s really two main causes. Possibility one is something physical, whether that be something like sleep apnea or chronic pains … The other possibility is something non-physical or mental and that can be stress, anxiety, depression, things of that nature,” said Dr. Daniel Barone, a sleep medicine doctor at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.

“When somebody has nightmares, the first thing we think about is: Could it be one of these categories?” he said.

Oftentimes, nightmares have to do with the mental side of things, Barone noted. Think about it: have you ever dreamed about forgetting your passport before a big trip? Or woke in a panic after a too-real nightmare about work?

Barone pointed out that nightmares can be related to a physical condition, too. Like, sometimes people with sleep apnea may dream of being underwater and unable to breathe, he said.

Sleep-Talking, Sleep-Eating And Sleep-Walking

Gehrman said there is a category of sleep issues known as parasomnias that can also occur when you’re stressed (nightmares also fall under this umbrella). In fact, he said you’re more likely to have these parasomnias ― which include sleep-talking, sleep-walking and sleep-eating ― when you’re anxious.

It may be hard to know when you’re doing this in your sleep. If you have a bed partner, they can try to keep tabs. Or if you find yourself waking up in a different room than you sleep in, you may want to tell your doctor.

A Lack Of Deep Sleep

According to Gehrman, when you’re under stress, you also don’t spend as much time in the deep sleep stage of rest.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is even when you do fall asleep, the way I often describe it is the stress kind of follows you into sleep and can keep you from spending as much time in the deeper stages of sleep,” he said.

Staying in the lighter phases of sleep makes it more likely that you’ll wake up throughout the night. You’re also not getting the maximum restorative benefits that come with proper rest. “You’re just not getting the same quality of sleep,” Gehrman said.

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After a stressful day, you may find that you’re waking up more than usual throughout the night.

How To Reduce Stress Before Bed

“Usually what I tell people [is] you want to go to bed with the clearest mind possible,” Barone said. Meditation and massage are both great ways to reach that goal, he noted. Anything that’s going to help somebody to relax their brain I think is super, super helpful.”

Reading and muscle relaxation are also great ways to destress before bed, Gehrman said. Journaling is another option. Gehrman said you can write down your bothersome thoughts before you go to bed to help you get better rest.

“Writing them down can help to clear them out of your mind a bit so those thoughts are less likely to interfere with your ability to sleep at night,” Gehrman explained.

It’s important to have a wind-down ritual before bed — you shouldn’t go straight from work to bed or straight from your social media newsfeed to bed, either.

“Most of us need at least 30 minutes, if not 60 minutes of relaxing activities … before we’re physically and mentally ready for bed,” Gehrman explained.

Finally, if you’re concerned about your sleep, ask your doctor about a sleep evaluation. “If these things continue to happen and they disturb [your sleep], just get tested,” Barone said.

Sleep evaluations monitor you while you sleep to determine how long you spend in deep sleep, how often you wake up, the amount of oxygen you’re getting and more, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. This lets doctors know how you’re sleeping and if anything is disrupting your rest.

Additionally, therapy can be a good way to manage and decrease your stress, which will help with your sleep and so much more.

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