Conquer the Cruel Sleep-Stress Cycle
Your Zs and your mental health are in a long-term relationship—a complicated one. Simplify the struggle to feel your best.
Life happens, which means stress happens. Sometimes it's short term, like when you have too much on your to-do list. Other times, stress lasts longer (think layoffs, health scares and relationship problems), and the only thing that suffers more than your mind is your sleep. There's a very real, physiological reason—and understanding it can help you avoid suffering in the first place.
How Stress Tanks Sleep
Stressful situations trigger your sympathetic nervous system, aka your fight-or-flight response, to signal to your brain that something is wrong, which, in turn, stimulates the release of the stress hormone cortisol. That's a good thing if there's a real threat to your survival (say, a car goes through a red light and you quickly swerve out of the way), but a bad thing if you're trying to settle peacefully into bed, explains Jennifer Martin, PhD, a clinical sleep specialist, professor of medicine at UCLA and Nike Performance Council member. When you climb into your sheets after a stressful moment, day or week and you've done nothing to actively lower your cortisol, Martin says it's like trying to sleep with a bear outside your tent—it's not going to happen. It doesn't matter if that bear is in the form of overdue rent after you've lost your job, an exam you have to ace to pass a class or a fight with your best friend. "Our brain reacts in the same way: by keeping us awake", she says.
"When you climb into your sheets after a stressful moment, day or week and you've done nothing to actively lower your cortisol, it's like trying to sleep with a bear outside your tent—it's not going to happen".
Jennifer Martin, PhD
Nike Performance Council Member
How (Lost) Sleep Spurs Stress
Now, the other side of the coin: you've probably also noticed that you feel worse when you don't sleep well, making dealing with said stress even more difficult. You know, that whole vicious cycle thing. That's because sleep regulates your body's stress response system, says Martin. A lack of sleep can keep that stress response activated, which may leave you feeling even more distressed. Beyond that, sleep deprivation can lead to irritability, anxiety, emotional changes and decreased focus, says Meredith Broderick, MD, a board-certified physician in sleep medicine, neurology and behavioural sleep medicine.
During sleep, your brain also clears itself of mental debris that can decrease thinking, reasoning, understanding and perception. Meanwhile, it's consolidating memories and learning, among a range of other physiological processes that promote balance in the parts of the brain that control emotions and mood, says Broderick. Miss out on all that sweet stuff, and it's no wonder your exhausted self can't deal.
And while just one night of poor sleep can make you feel off the next day, the real detriment to your mental state hits after about four consecutive nights of lost sleep, says Martin. "Something that's a little frustrating could become overwhelming, and interesting challenges are huge problems all of a sudden", says Martin. Your thoughts go to more negative places when you're tired, she adds, which is substantiated by a study published in the Journal of Sleep Research: people who were running on five days of poor sleep perceived pleasant pictures more harshly. You might also be more irritable around your people, she says, and have less motivation to stick with your usual wellness routine.
If you feel yourself creeping towards that tipping point, take this advice to keep both "s" words in formation.
01. Avoid alcohol.
Hands up if you typically reach for a glass of wine or a beer to take the edge off before bed. Many people turn to alcohol as a way to escape stress, especially at night, says Martin. They think it will help lull them to sleep, but drinking actually does the opposite. "Alcohol tricks you. It makes you feel relaxed and sleepy in the beginning, but about three hours later, as you're metabolising it, it makes you feel more alert and disrupts your sleep", she says. Skip the nightcap and pour yourself a cup of caffeine-free herbal tea (like chamomile) instead, which some studies suggest can promote sounder Zs.
02. Keep triggers outside the bedroom.
The room you sleep in should be a peaceful environment that promotes rest and relaxation. It should not (we repeat: not) be the centre of activity where you work, study, pay bills, watch the news or argue with your partner, says Martin. The more you can separate the source of your stress from your sleep sanctuary, the more you can psychologically distance that stress from your sheets, she explains.
03. Choose a mellow-out activity.
Creating a wind-down routine consisting of one or several calm-you-down activities can set you up for a good night's sleep. Reading (preferably an actual book or magazine rather than a screen) can help distract your brain from anxious thoughts, says Martin. Journalling—and focusing on the day's highlights or things you're grateful for—can help replace discombobulating thoughts with optimistic ones, she adds. And meditation, if it feels natural to you, can help you transition into rest-and-digest mode. You could also try listening to relaxing music which, like meditation, can help you shift from fight-or-flight to goodnight, thanks to its ability to lower cortisol and release dopamine. Listen every night and you can become a better sleeper, suggests research.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to this: sleep more to stress less and feel your best.
Words: Ronnie Howard
Illustration: Sophi Gullbrants