What Is Stress Really Doing to Your Sleep Cycle?

We’re never happy when the stress and pressure of our day-to-day lives starts creeping into our down time. (For real, though, there is no reason that we should be thinking about emails mind when we’re binge watching Making a Murderer.) The second it starts taking a toll on our sleep, that’s where we draw the line.

For all of those who have been kept awake at night because of stress, here’s the real need-to-know break down of what stress is doing to your sleep cycle, along with a few tips on how to set things straight.

sleep disorder, insomnia. young blonde woman lying on the bed awake

How Stress Ruins Sleep

You might think that having trouble getting to bed when you’re stressed comes down mainly to the number of thoughts racing in your head, but it gets way more physiological than that. When your mind is preoccupied with too many anxious thoughts at night, your muscles start to tense up and your body starts releasing cortisol in your body. The stress hormone in turn elevates your heart rate and keeps supplying your body with energy, preventing your system from slowing down as it needs to in order to relax and eventually doze off.

Even in the event that you do finally manage to get some shut eye, the rise in cortisol levels is likely to disrupt the quality of your sleep, either by causing you to wake up mid cycle or by preventing you from ever reach a deep REM sleep.


top view of bedroom with insomniac man unable to sleep

A Vicious Cycle

The worst thing about how stress affects your sleep is that once you’ve let your anxiety get the better of you for a single night, it becomes pretty hard to get your sleep back on track. The problem is that while higher cortisol levels caused by stress may be the root cause of losing sleep one night, the hours of good sleep that you missed out on can cause a spike in cortisol levels the next day. Consequently, the heightened cortisol levels will once again prevent you from having a good night’s sleep, and so on and so forth.

Besides potentially losing out on multiple nights of sound sleep because of the domino-like effect of a single night of anxious restlessness, stress starts to hurt you in a number of other areas when it becomes a chronic issue. For example, it can break down your immune system and cause poor immune responses in your body, lead to higher calorie consumption and subsequent weight gain, and cause spikes in blood sugar.   

Fixing the Problem

If only knowing about the negative effects of stress on sleep was enough to get rid of the problem. Needless to say, it’s not. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a number of tips and tricks that you can try to help you get over the anxiety before bedtime.

Teenage girl reaching for her cell phone, on night stand, while in bed. Teen using technology late at night instead of sleeping.

For example, when you find yourself struggling to wind down and clear your mind at the end of a long day, try doing a few sleep-promoting yoga poses to help you relax. Another option could be turning off all of your devices – i.e. cell phone, computer, TV, etc. – or grabbing a light late-night snack high in tryptophan that can help you fall asleep.


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