Why does stress interfere with sleep? The night should be a time for the body and mind to recover and prepare for the next day.
Unfortunately the stresses that we face during the day are immediate and easily resolved. The responses that make the body and mind react to events that need immediate attention are now under constant bombardment. We no longer need to hunt for food or protect ourselves from the elements or wild animals. We have to face demands that may not be quickly resolved and our ability to switch off and sleep is compromised as we lie awake going over the day…
Stress is not just an attack on the mind. It affects the body as well. We may not even be aware of the damage that stress reeks on the body. Individuals vary with the way they manage stress and ‘coping mechanisms’ may include other factors that interfere with sleep. Alcohol smoking, irregular eating, lack of exercise and relationship and social problems, help many people get through a stressful time and are hard to relinquish when times improve.
That’s the problem with stress. Sometimes what has initially caused the stress may change, but the habits remain. It might just be that life is full of stresses – from work to family demands, long term illness or just life as it is…Sometimes it is not possible to change the outside world so the only thing left is to change the way we deal with stress.
Stress and Sleep
Anxiety is one of the major causes of insomnia. Nearly everyone will have some experience of not being able to sleep worrying over what has, or might happen. Children will stay awake as long as possible and wake early before a birthday or Christmas. Adults may not even recognise that they have a problem with sleep or with their stress levels, until it affects their health, work or relationships. They may just accept that it is part of life – limited sleep and trying to juggle other parts of life.
Who and Why
Of course some people cope better with the same situations than others. Some of this may be due to personality and what is known as the ‘hardiness factor’. Studies have also shown that ranking and position affect individuals in their ability to defend or protect their position. Not surprisingly, the bossier person fares better than those on the receiving end who are likely to suffer more from stress and associated health problems.
Signs of Stress
Recognising that stress is having an effect on sleep is the first step. The human body is pretty resilient and it may take some time, even years, before health is affected. Mood changes may be blamed on outside factors, and irritability and fatigue are often seen as part of living a busy life. Sleep is more sensitive. It may be the first sign that life is affecting mental and physical health.
High levels of cortisone and adrenaline in the body prevent the body and mind from winding down and falling asleep. Immunity is affected and ultimately the body is more susceptible to viruses and other diseases. These all have other causes as well, but there is no doubt that stress makes people more susceptible to illness and less resilient both mentally and physically. The body also needs to sleep to repair cells and rest the mind. Stress and lack of sleep are a potentially dangerous combination.
It makes sense to look at ways to improve stress levels and sleep quality together. Sometimes it is possible to make changes in what is causing the stress. More often it is easier to change the way the body and mind reacts to everyday stress. This does not mean that situations such as an unhappy relationship, unacceptable working conditions or other problems should not be confronted. Sometimes it is an accumulation of the choices we have made that is causing the problem. Financial, work and family pressures can dominate our lives to such an extent that we neglect other parts of life and lose perspective.
Ways to Help
Reducing stress and improving sleep both benefit from a mind/body approach. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the choice of many experts who see it as a way to make adjustments in the way the mind and body reacts to events. The cognitive side helps individuals find perspective in their lives and find ways to look differently at situations. The behavioural side teaches the body to develop strategies that will help change its physical response to stress.
To sleep well the body and mind need to be relaxed. It cannot switch from high adrenal and cortisone levels, muscle tension and a racing mind into a state suitable to encourage sleep without a period of winding down. Therapies such as yoga, meditation, massage and learning breathing techniques, teach the body and mind to adjust and become calmer. Breathing deeply and finding ways to control an overactive mind can have a profound affect on health and how the body reacts to stress.
By finding ways to slow down the mind and relax the body control is regained and many people find they become more effective in the day, and more relaxed and able to sleep at night.
Stress and sleep are also affected by other factors. A healthy diet, fresh air, exercise and good relationships all help strengthen the mind and body and give inner strength. It is worth making a few changes to combat the long term affects of what is increasingly part of twenty first century living.