Stress is the common denominator of the human population, which is less than ideal. An excessive amount of it will undoubtedly cause various health problems in the long run, but it will immediately hinder sleep quality and duration.
Stress causes the autonomic nervous system to release adrenaline and cortisol. The pair of hormones increase your heart rate to circulate blood to vital organs when your body needs to be alert, commonly known as the fight/flight response. When this basic survival mechanism is triggered on a constant basis, it may create many adverse problems to your physical and mental state, including affecting your sleep. This, in turn, may give you bad dreams, wake you up in the middle of the night, or make you feel fatigued no matter how long you were able to rest.
Stress and sleep are mutually connected in many ways. A prolonged inability to sleep causes a cycle of worrying about not sleeping, ultimately making you stressed. This increased stress causes more sleepless nights, and the cycle goes on. The purpose of stress is to keep you in a high state of alertness in case of a threat, so you can fight or flee the situation. However, our brain does not know the difference between reality and fiction. So it pumps the hormones into our body every time we get stressed.
The structure of our modern lifestyle is prone to high-stress levels. No wonder we see a rise in low mental health, depression, suicide and other chronic ailments, including lack of sleep. Luckily, stress can be weeded out of our lives or at least reduced to a minimum by changing and adapting a handful of lifestyle habits.
- Mindfulness meditation produces a state of relaxation. When you focus your attention on slow breathing, you pay less attention to the stream of thoughts that usually make you tense. Even as little as 10 minutes of meditation a day can reduce cortisol levels.
- Exercise releases endorphins – the happy hormone, which reduces cortisol levels. A 6-week study found that participants who exercised twice a week had reduced perceived stress caused by uncertainty (Herbert et al., 2020).
- Reduce your caffeine intake. Overconsumption will harm your sleep routine and, in turn, increase stress and anxiety symptoms. Make sure you don’t have caffeine at least 8 hours before bedtime to avoid disrupting your sleep quality.
- Seek support from family and friends. Having a social support system is beneficial to your overall mental health.