Sleep is one of the most important things we do in life and it has a number of important effects on both our health as well as our well-being. Stress, meanwhile, has similar effects, but they take us in the wrong direction. Managing both of these wisely can be extremely important if we want to have a happy, healthy and productive life.
Unfortunately, our sleep and stress levels have become problems for many people in our hurried up 24/7 21st Century lives. Stress happens to us when we face the demands for change, no matter whether that change has positive or negative effects. Positive stressors can be something like a marriage or the birth of a baby, job promotion or family vacation. Negative stressors include illness, death of a loved one, illness or financial woes.
Stress can occasionally be severe or prolonged. It’s the cause or at least a contributing factor in many of today’s most devastating disease processes like high blood pressure, arthritis and asthma. Stress is also a contributing factor in relapses from addictions. On-the-job stress can be carried over into our home lives and wind up causing sleep and medical problems as well as affecting relationships.
When children experience stress, it can set their nervous systems up for a greater chance of depression and illnesses later on by depleting the immune system. Guilt and anger are also common stressors that affect almost everyone.
Women and men tend to deal with stress somewhat differently. Women will often look for support from friends and family and try to protect their children when they are facing stress. Men, on the other hand, may try to avoid stress entirely by acting out their feelings by unusual behavior, and use drugs or drink heavily.
When people are stressed, they tend to overeat or have cravings for comfort foods like peanut butter, macaroni and cheese and even mashed potatoes. They also tend to crave high-fat sweetened foods that cause the brain to release chemicals like serotonin and the endorphins that help us feel better.
Sleep is designed to alleviate stress by allowing the body to rejuvenate and heal itself. Sleep improves your brain’s ability to work properly and carry out the many functions it’s designed to do.
Links Between Sleep and Stress
According to several studies, there are links between sleep and stress, especially the type of stress that’s caused by problems in the work environment. Often the two will combine and begin a never-ending vicious cycle that can become disastrous as people become exhausted from one and then fail to recuperate before the other sets in.
Sleep can often be directly impacted by stress. We’ve all had the experience of being wide awake in the middle of the night unable to sleep because we are continually thinking about something stressful in our lives. Scientific evidence is beginning to indicate that stress often will have a profound effect on our sleep.
People who suffer from insomnia appear to experience more stressful events in their lives when compared to those who are always sleeping comfortably. Recent research has shown that even the appraisal of stress has an influence on insomnia. This means that even if there are only a few events in your life that others might consider stressful, the very fact that you recognize even those few events will cause you to lose sleep.
When military personnel from the US who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during the conflicts there, their quality of sleep was lower than before they arrived. Stress is considered to be one of the main reasons for this decline in the quality of their sleep. Even after they returned from the war zones, their sleep quality continued to be lower. This fact has lead many experts to believe that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder should be considered as having played a role in this effect.
Curiously, it isn’t just those who’ve been exposed to such extreme stress who experience difficulties in sleeping. Anxiety can also be a factor. In tests using a broad variety of working employees, on days when there were low emotional labor demands, levels of anxiety were low and insomnia did not to appear to be an issue. However, on days when there was high emotional labor, anxiety was higher and there was a noticeable rise in levels of insomnia.
Sleep can also influence stress and the amount of stress that you experience. The reason is that you perceive the stress caused by events in your life and your perception influences your actual stress levels. In a recent study that examined the effects of sleep on stress, participants in the study took an examination that was considered mildly stressful. The ones in the study who had experienced sleep deprivation the night before showed higher levels of stress when taking the test compared with those who had experienced a normal night of sleep. Other research has shown similar results indicating that lack of sleep seems to lead to stress.
The good news is that stress can be reduced in a number of different ways. Exercising control over a stressful situation helps create a buffer against stress. Social support can also be helpful as organizational wellness programs will often focus on managing the causes of stress. When stress is lowered, not only are there many health and well-being benefits, but you’ll also sleep better. One study has shown that stress reduction programs actually lead to improvements in your sleep.
Improving how well you sleep can also lower your stress levels. By improving a few specific patterns of your behavior that promote better sleep patterns, you will sleep better. And when you sleep better, the difficulties of life will always seem to be less stressful.
If you find yourself in stressful situations nearly all the time, try getting a little more sleep. If stress is keeping you awake, fix your sleep patterns accordingly. No matter what you do, make sure you don’t get yourself caught up in a downward spiral of stress and exhaustion.