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How Does Stress Impact Our Sleep Patterns?


How Does Stress Impact Our Sleep Patterns?

Sleep plays a crucial role in how well we can function daily—yet, the importance of quality sleep is often overlooked. Not getting enough restful sleep can have wide-ranging adverse effects on physical and mental health. Poor sleep can cause difficulties with concentration, memory, and decision-making, and it can weaken the immune system. It can also contribute to stress and mood disorders and increase the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Research indicates that getting regular, restful sleep is essential, but meeting this goal remains challenging for many adults. The CDC reports around 1 in 3 U.S. adults gets less than the recommended minimum of 7 hours of sleep each night. As stress is one aspect of daily life that significantly impacts sleep quality and sleep patterns, incorporating stress management strategies into your routine can help improve your sleep.

What is Stress?

Stress is a natural response to difficulties and changes in our environment that shows up in the body and mind. Stress can affect the body in two main ways — in the short-term through acute stress, and over a long period of time through chronic stress. Acute stress is usually experienced in response to specific events, like a car crash or stressful work event, while more long-term issues, such as chronic health conditions or a high-pressure job, cause chronic stress.

The Relationship Between Stress and Sleep

What is stress’ impact on sleep? The relationship between stress and sleep is considered to be bidirectional. High-stress levels can cause disruptions in sleep cycles, and poor sleep can contribute to stress. Chronic stress is the primary type of stress that impacts sleep in the long run. With chronic stress, the body is in an activated fight-or-flight state for an extended period. Since the nervous system is constantly in this heightened readiness mode to deal with a threat, it primes the body to stay alert 24/7. This can manifest as racing, anxious thoughts at night, which can get in the way of falling and staying asleep. Once poor sleep starts to become a pattern and recur over time due to chronic stress, sleep deprivation occurs. Stress-related systems are triggered further when the body doesn’t get adequate sleep. For example, the increased stress hormone cortisol is produced in response to sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation can also add to emotional stress by increasing feelings of anxiety, irritability, and trouble focusing during the day.

Sleep and Stress Symptoms

Stress has a generally negative effect on sleep quality and the consistency of sleep cycles, but it also shows up in more specific ways. One of the most common sleep disorders—insomnia—is typically rooted in stress. Short-term insomnia is commonly linked to acute stress or a traumatic experience. Insomnia, in the long term, is often a result of chronic stress. Other examples of how sleep and stress symptoms can manifest include changes in the stages of the sleep cycles. One of the most significant ways stress can disrupt the sleep cycle is by reducing the restful, deep sleep you get each night. Sleep deprivation can also change the natural pattern of your sleep cycle by causing you to get more REM sleep earlier in the night than you ideally should.

How to Manage Stress for Sleep

Learning to manage your stress is the best way to minimize its impact on sleep and to prevent many of the negative ways stress affects the body overall. Many stress management techniques may be incorporated into your nightly routine to promote relaxation and improved sleep quality. Some expert-tested and recommended stress-reducing techniques include:

1. Develop a Sleep Schedule

Sleep consistency is essential for meeting various goals, from seeing results from your fitness efforts to getting quality sleep. Try maintaining a regular sleep schedule, falling asleep and waking up at the same time each day — during the week and on the weekend. This promotes a regular sleep cycle, and WHOOP found that those who get the most consistent sleep also get more SWS and REM Sleep, too.

2. Improve Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene is an approach to improving sleep that involves adding healthy habits to your evening routine. This includes avoiding alcohol and caffeine later in the day and not eating right before bed. Minimizing screen time and maintaining a cool, dark, quiet sleep environment are other useful strategies.

3. Prioritize Daytime Exercise

Regular exercise helps improve both stress relief and sleep quality. The endorphins released by working out boost mood and energy levels. A consistent fitness routine is linked to increased sleep and higher quality sleep. It’s best to schedule workouts during the day rather than at night to optimize the positive effect of exercise on rest.

4. Schedule Worry Time

Anxious thoughts are one of the most common stress symptoms that can get in the way of falling asleep at night. Managing these thoughts in a constructive, scheduled way during the day can keep them from disrupting your sleep. If you’re dealing with a lot of stress in your life, try scheduling a block of worry time in the morning or afternoon so you can spend structured time considering and strategizing about your anxieties and stressors.

5. Engage in Breathwork

Practicing breathwork is another proven strategy to help you reduce stress and improve sleep. The cyclic sigh, or physiological sigh, is a proven breathing technique that can reduce stress levels quickly and effectively, and is available through the Stress Monitor feature.

Manage Stress with WHOOP

There is no single definition of stress, and everyone experiences stress differently. Feelings of stress can be self-reported based on how you feel, or measured with biomarkers, like cortisol.

The more you know about how stress impacts you daily, the more effectively you can work to manage it. Stress Monitor helps you better understand how stress impacts you and your body throughout the day. Stress Monitor measures your heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) in the moment as indicators of your physiological response to stress. Your reading is then compared to your personalized baseline from the past 14 days, and any motion is taken into account to help distinguish known stressors, like exercise, from other stressors. Stress Monitor then identifies your stress levels on a scale of 0 (low stress) to 3 (your peak stress level). To better understand the psychological experience of stress, you can use the WHOOP Journal. You can log your perceived stress levels and WHOOP will analyze how self-reported stress effects your resting heart rate, heart rate variability, recovery, and duration of each stage of sleep. To help manage stress in the moment, you can practice breathing sessions to support relaxation or promote alertness. Research shows that these breathing exercises can mediate symptoms of stress by boosting mood, lowering anxiety, and decreasing respiratory rates. Over time, Stress Monitor can help you better identify patterns or stressful triggers that can affect their stress levels and their sleep.