The Relationship Between Stress and Sleep

Sleep matters. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 35% of American adults don’t get enough sleep… and that lack of sleep translates into serious health consequences.

Getting a good night’s sleep means positive physical and mental health benefits that make a big difference in daily life. Getting a good night’s sleep is complicated, of course, by reality. Stress, depression, pain, and other factors feed off of sleep problems; in turn, sleep problems are linked to a wide range of mental health issues. Recent COVID-19-related worries have also been linked to what some neurologists call “COVID-somnia”—a sharp increase in sleep disorders caused by stress and nervousness. And even if we’re able to carve out 8 hours to sleep and go to bed on time, there’s no promise of quickly falling asleep or staying asleep.

However, the science is clear: The less stressed you are, the better your sleep will be. And the better your sleep is, the less stressed you will be.

Sleep Problem Nation

Approximately 50% of Americans self-report as having sleep issues and 4-22% meet the clinical criteria for more serious sleep-related conditions. According to one Rand Institution study, productivity losses at work and injuries related to sleep deprivation cost the US economy over $400 billion annually. However, sleep deprivation is not distributed equally. Poorer ZIP codes are more likely to have higher rates of sleep issues and African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to report sleep issues than whites. The interplay between stress and sleep is complicated and is affected by everything from discrimination to physical health issues to geographic location.


Sleep Impacts Stress, Stress Impacts Sleep

Researchers examining connections between stress and sleep problems have found something very interesting: Consistent problems falling asleep tend to be associated with lower stress thresholds. Meanwhile, people who tend to fall asleep easily tend to fall asleep easily even when dealing with relatively high levels of stress.

Overall, lack of sleep reduces our ability to manage stress and even aggravates stressors. Things that might not be stressful on their own or might only be minor stressors become much more stressful when sleep is involved.

The major challenge is that our internal biological clocks and our sympathetic nervous systems have a complex interplay which differs from person to person. One person can fall asleep easily at 10pm if they have a coffee at 8pm; another person might stay up until midnight if they drink a coffee at 5pm. The same variability is at play with stress; minor stressors which might not impact one person might lead to sleep problems in others.

A study led by researchers at Laval University also finds indications that stress can trigger sleep problems in some people. Previously good sleepers, when exposed to persistent stress, can develop sleep issues. Either way, existing sleep reactivity and sleep problems in general tend to lead to an increased risk of stress-related sleep problems.

Furthermore, situational sleep issues related to temporary stressful conditions appears to indicate individuals will develop further sleep issues in the future. These tendencies, some studies report, can also be exacerbated if someone lacks social support and a strong support network of family and friends.


Healthier Sleep, Healthier Life

Sleep problems also tend to happen in tandem with other mental health issues related to stress. Researchers have found that sleep problems aren’t only a significant risk factor for mental health issues, but that they exacerbate the duration and severity of existing symptoms. Sleep reactivity is closely related to stress and a host of other mental health issues, and reducing stress is one of the best possible ways to reduce sleep reactivity.

One of the most important things anyone can do to improve their sleep habits is realizing just how interconnected sleep and stress are. Improving sleep habits may well reduce stress, and reducing stress leads to better sleep. One can’t take place without the other.

Some of the best evidence-based approaches for sleep hygiene as cited by the CDC include:

  •  Choosing and sticking to consistent bedtimes and wake-up times.
  •  Keeping bedrooms quiet, dark, and at a comfortable temperature.
  •  Removing electronics such as smartphones, computers and TVs from bedrooms.
  •  Avoiding large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bed.
  •  Exercise and physical activity during the day.

Improving sleep habits reduces stress levels for many of us, but there is no one size fits all approach to better sleep. Different people have different priorities when it comes to getting a good nights’ sleep, and finding the right approach usually requires trial and error.

In the end though, it’s worth it. Sleep disorders have been linked to higher risks for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, memory problems, poor problem-solving, fatigue and mood disturbances. Avoiding that with an extra hour or two of sleep each night? That’s a good thing.



Work Cited

Drake CL, Pillai V, Roth T. Stress and sleep reactivity: a prospective investigation of the stress-diathesis model of insomnia. Sleep . 2014;37(8):1295-1304. Published 2014 Aug 1. doi:10.5665/sleep.3916

Jarrin DC, Chen IY, Ivers H, Morin CM. The role of vulnerability in stress-related insomnia, social support and coping styles on incidence and persistence of insomnia. J Sleep Res . 2014;23(6):681-688. doi:10.1111/jsr.12172

Kalmbach DA, Cuamatzi-Castelan AS, Tonnu CV, et al. Hyperarousal and sleep reactivity in insomnia: current insights. Nat Sci Sleep . 2018;10:193-201. Published 2018 Jul 17. doi:10.2147/NSS.S138823

Kessler RC, Berglund PA, Coulouvrat C, et al. Insomnia and the performance of US workers: results from the America insomnia survey. Sleep 2011;34:1161-71.

Palagini L, Moretto U, Novi M, et al. Lack of Resilience Is Related to Stress-Related Sleep Reactivity, Hyperarousal, and Emotion Dysregulation in Insomnia Disorder. J Clin Sleep Med . 2018;14(5):759-766. Published 2018 May 15. doi:10.5664/jcsm.7100