|August 16, 2021

Stress and Sleeplessness: A Life Coach Unpacks the Issue—And How to Fix It

By Dana Shavin, MS, CPCC
Reviewed by Emily Gonzalez, ND for Scientific Accuracy

Stress and Sleeplessness: A Life Coach Unpacks the Issue—And How to Fix It

  • The heightened state of arousal associated with long-term stress can directly impact our ability to fall asleep (and stay asleep), in addition to waking up.
  • Chronic under-sleeping, which can result from stress, has been tied to several long-term health issues.
  • There are different cognitive behavioral techniques, as well as natural supplements, that can help you alleviate stress so you can get a full night’s rest.

Ah, sleep. That blissful nightly reprieve from all things worrisome. That lovely, mysterious, and, for many, downright elusive mistress. However, stress and sleep can be an extremely toxic duo, which can ultimately impact our physical and mental health.

For example, chronic under-sleeping has been linked to mood disorders, chronic health problems and an underperforming immune system.[1] On the other hand, did you know routinely getting too much sleep (defined as more than nine hours a day) can pose similar physical and mental health risks?

If you’re having trouble solving the recurring problem of how to sleep when stressed, continue on for helpful insights and ideas that’ll encourage you to kick stress outside of your sacred bed for good—where it belongs!

Sleep length and the impact of stress

Woman awake in the night resting her head on her hand

One of the largest sleep studies to date found that, regardless of age, we need seven to eight hours of sleep in order to perform at our highest level of cognitive functioning.[2] Interestingly, routinely sleeping four hours resulted in participants functioning as if they were nine years older than they were, and those who slept more than nine hours a night were as impaired as those who slept too little. The negative impact of too much or too little sleep was the same for everyone, regardless of age.

There are numerous factors that can affect our sleep routine, but one of the main culprits is stress, which is the body’s natural reaction to a situation it perceives as threatening. When we feel threatened, our autonomic nervous system releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which raise our respiration and heart rate and prepare us for “fight-or-flight”—that is, to either attempt to fend off the perceived enemy, or to flee the situation. This was a crucial survival mechanism during our early stages of evolution, and once the threat passed, we returned to our pre-stressed level of functioning.

Related: How Ashwagandha Helps You Stress Less and Handle More 

The negative effects of long-term stress

Man working on computer holding his face in frustration

In today’s world, chronic stress—remaining in a heightened state of arousal or anxiety—is often the norm, rather than the exception. Unfortunately, that can affect the body in numerous detrimental ways. Chronic stress can result from physical illness (our own or a loved one’s), chronic pain, mental illness (our own or a loved one’s), unsatisfying work conditions, relationship discord, financial concerns, social isolation and trauma, to name just a few catalysts.[3]

This negative correlation can also result in poor work performance, short- and long-term memory problems, brain fog and decreased energy—any of which can interfere with our sleep, resulting in a vicious cycle where stress begets lack of sleep, and lack of sleep begets more stress.

Even the stress caused by positive events—an impending vacation, your best friend’s upcoming wedding or the receipt of exciting news—can impair the body’s ability to sleep restfully, as the body does not distinguish between positive and negative stress.

How stress can impact your sleep quality

Man sleeping in bed at home

This heightened state of arousal associated with long-term stress can interfere with our ability to fall asleep, stay asleep and even wake up. When digging deeper into the stress and sleep relationship, we find that we may not spend as long in each of the four stages of sleep that we cycle through multiple times per night. This can make us drowsy and irritable in the morning (Grrr!).

Additionally, we may be tempted to “make up” our sleep during the day, which can further disrupt our ability to fall asleep or stay asleep at night. (Sorry, naps!)

4 ways to de-stress before bedtime

Woman doing yoga in bed

When it comes to understanding stress and sleep, it’s important you know you don’t have to become a victim. There are numerous cognitive behavioral techniques that can help you alleviate stress and worry and get a good night’s sleep.

However, don’t try to learn how to sleep when stressed. Instead, commit to de-stressing techniques before bed. And, for those with a long history of interrupted or erratic sleep patterns, it can take time and focus to retrain the brain to sleep when it should be sleeping.

The good news: It’s never too late.

Here are some suggestions for getting yourself de-stressed and safely into the Land of Nod.

1. Set aside designated “worry time”

Just as you create designated times for meals, exercise and hygiene routines, create a designated “worry time.” Don’t fret about the investment, though; 5-10 minutes daily should do the trick!

The idea is to use that time to let your mind wander over whatever worrisome territory it wants. You may choose to write a list of everything you’re worried about during this time, or journal about whatever comes up. Just remember to remind yourself that when “worry time” is up, you need to return to your day. Then, at night, when you crawl in bed and are tempted to return to your worries, remind yourself that you will have designated worry time the next day to address what needs to be, well, addressed.

It may take some practice, but get into the habit of refusing to entertain worrisome thoughts. This is a practice that gets easier the longer you do it, and your experience also depends largely on your level of focus and dedication.

2. Commit to mind-body practices

There are a number of mindfulness practices that can help you shift your focus at night. Yoga nidra, tai chi, guided imagery and progressive relaxation are just a few. There are some excellent YouTube videos that can walk you through these if you just take a few minutes to conduct a search.

Related: This Yoga Nidra Routine Will Make You Feel Like You Got a Full Night’s Sleep

3. Engage in breathing exercises

Breathing exercises can help tame a racing heart and refocus the mind on the body.[4] The practice of slow breathing, defined as taking 10 or fewer breaths per minute, has been shown to result in increased relaxation and alertness, and to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger and confusion.

Try the 4-7-8 breathing routine, which consists of breathing in for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 7 seconds and exhaling for 8 seconds. This forces your mind to focus on regulating your breath rather than on what is troubling you. Or, give the relaxing body scan method a shot (intentional breathing coupled with noticing the sensations that arise in your body and breathing through them).

There are also apps that can be helpful, including Calm and Headspace.

4. Take supportive supplements

Man in bed about to take blue pills.

At Bulletproof, we believe there are plenty of tools and ingredients that can promote relaxation in a healthful way:

  • Rhodiola, an herb that grows in parts of Russia and Asia, can assist with your wind-down routine. A study showed that taking 400mg of rhodiola extract daily for 12 weeks improved associated symptoms, including anxiety, exhaustion and irritability.[5] Rhodiola may be used to help combat stress and can help fight fatigue, depression and anxiety.† It has long been known as an adaptogen, a natural, non-toxic herb that increases stress resistance.
  • Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that has been shown to help balance out the mood.[6] It supports the adrenal glands, which produce a fast-acting stress hormone called cortisol. Supplementing with ashwagandha is a popular practice for people looking for improved relaxation and sleep.
  • Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by the body that many people also take in supplemental form. Arguably the most popular and well-known sleep-related supplement on the market, you can find melatonin in a variety of forms.

In addition to consuming supportive supplements, you can try inhalation aromatherapy. Breathing in lavender and chamomile essential oils has been shown to have a statistically significant impact on depression, anxiety and stress levels.†[6]

Related: Melatonin for Sleep: Does it Work?

Examining post-de-stress sleep quality

Person writing in journal

Once you decide on a course of stress and sleep treatment, be sure to keep a sleep log or journal to see what’s working (and what’s not) over time. It may be that one course of action works, or an activity in tandem with another practice (such as pairing supplements with breathing exercises) works best for you.

In life coaching, we talk about “going toward the light,” which means having a positive attitude—in this case, about your ability to corral your stress and positively impact your sleep habits. So, instead of asking “Why can’t I sleep tonight?” when you’re lying awake, try asking, “What can I do right now that will quiet my mind and help me sleep?”

With the right mindset and tools, you can start to tackle (and quiet) the stressors that are keeping you up each night.

Strive for quality sleep—you deserve it!

The bottom line: Sleep troubles related to stress are common. However, don’t beat yourself up about it, as stress only lends to more stress. Instead, arm yourself with a number of ways to de-stress, and you can employ one or more to help you catch those quality zzzs. The idea here is to get yourself back on a sleep-wake schedule that is healthy, regular and works for your lifestyle and body. The rewards will be felt almost immediately, and there’s nothing like a good night’s sleep to make you want to keep the good habits going.

Want to learn more about how to help your mind, body and soul? Try out these eight mind-body wellness practices that can make a real difference in how you feel.

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