Sleep and stress are two major health concerns for America, with one in three adults considered to be sleep deprived and over 50% of adults reporting significant stress throughout their daily lives, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The more adults stress about everything from money to the state of the nation, the more difficult it can be to get a good night’s sleep. This poses a risk for their heart health and ups the likelihood of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Failing to sleep, meanwhile, also increases stress levels. Sleep is, in essence, a buffer that helps people weather everyday stressors such as traffic, long commutes, and the conflict between work and personal demands.
Why is Good Sleep Key for a Calm Mind?
There is a big link between sleep deprivation and stress. As noted by Harvard University academics, after just one sleepless night, people may feel more irritable, short-tempered, and vulnerable to stress. One University of Pennsylvania study, meanwhile, found that people who slept for just 4.5 hours per night for a full week, had higher levels of stress, and also reported feeling angrier, sadder, and more mentally fatigued.
Good sleep involves quality as well as quantity. You may be in bed for eight hours, that is, but if you are awake with worry or you get up frequently out of bed, you may not actually be making your way through all sleep stages. When you wake up, you may find that you don’t actually feel rested, or that you desperately need a nap during the day.
Deep Sleep and Dream Sleep are Key to Combating Stress
There are two sleep stages that help keep stress at healthy levels. One is the restorative stage of deep sleep; during this stage, chemicals are released that tell the body to stop producing stress hormones. Fail to enter the deep sleep stage, and your body will continue producing them. The entire process has a cyclical effect - that is, when you feel stressed, you may find it harder to fall asleep.
The dream sleep stage is also vital, with a UC Berkeley study showing that during this phase, our stress machinery shuts down and the brain is able to process emotional experiences and soften difficult memories. Those who have mastered the art of controlling dreams (so-called ‘lucid dreamers’) are also advantaged, with research undertaken a the University of Lincoln showing that they are more able to solve real-world problems than those without this ability.
How Does Stress Affect Sleep?
For anyone who has struggled to fall asleep, this question can almost seem rhetorical. Studies have shown that stressful events or factors such as high work demands wrest from sleep quality. For those whose stress manifests itself in anxiety, the process of falling asleep can be even more traumatic, since when the body is in ‘fight or flight’ mode, all the senses are alert and ready for defense - hardly the state you need to be in when sleep is on the agenda.
Sleep deprivation and stress feed off each other. Those who are unable to process stressful events well may lose vital hours of rest owing to worry and wakefulness. By the same token, sleeping fewer hours than necessary or having poor sleep quality can exacerbate stress. To solve the eternal sleep-stress cycle, both problems should be addressed through methods such as meditation, yoga, and breathing. If problems persist, professional help may be required.
(credit: Kay Greenwood)