Stress affects everyone in modern day life and finding a way to combat it is paramount to sleeping well and living a long and healthy life.
Whether it’s planning a wedding, revising for an exam, preparing for a driving test or moving house, we’ve all experienced those relentless sleepless nights where we toss and turn as the worries play repeatedly through our mind. The vicious circle continues the next day as the lack of sleep makes us irritable and creates problems within the family and at work – more stress!
Stress is actually an important aspect of life and without it we wouldn’t be alive today. The trick is in recognising when the stress has become too much and using techniques to reduce it so that it doesn’t have a negative effect on our sleep.
Acute Stress Response
Also known as the Fight-or-flight response, the acute stress response is a hangover from the days when humans used to be hunter gatherers. The fight response was to aggressively attack the threat and the flight response was to flee as fast as possible.
When a modern day human perceives a threat, the same sympathetic nervous system kicks into action and increases the heart rate, constricts the blood vessels and tenses the muscles.
After the real or perceived threat has left, the body resets and returns to normal with little or no long term health effects.
Long Term Stress Response
What happens though if your body is placed under constant stress from a perceived or real threat? In the same way that applying a constant physical stress to an object will eventually break it, the same is true for the human mind and body.
A stressed person’s work will suffer, relationships break down, bills go unpaid and, of course, sleep suffers.
Long term stress can result from financial worries, bereavement, divorce, work commitments, relationship troubles and problems with sleeping.
You’ll notice that a lot of the causes of stress are also the effects so it is very important to recognize what is causing the stress to avoid entering a vicious circle.
Symptoms of Stress
Signs of stress may be behavioural, emotional, cognitive, physical or a combination of all four.
Behavioural symptoms include:
- Eating more or less
- Increased use of alcohol and cigarettes.
Emotional symptoms include:
- Feeling overwhelmed.
Cognitive symptoms include:
- Memory problems
- Poor judgment
- Negative thoughts
- Constant worrying.
Physical symptoms include:
- Increased heartbeat leading to chest pains
- Loss of libido
- Recurrent colds.
Stress and Sleep
Stress can affect sleep in a number of often unpredictable ways. Where stress brings on depression it may result in sleeping longer than is normal but where stress brings on anxiety or effects digestion, it can shorten the length of time sleeping and make it harder to fall asleep.
Many people turn to alcohol or sleeping pills as a way of coping with these problems but in the long term these temporary solutions may actually make the problem worse.
Personality and response to stress
The response to a stressful situation can differ dramatically from one individual to another; what is stressful to one person may be a walk in the park for another.
Sometimes it is a matter of genes and down to a person’s adaptive personality but other times a person may have developed coping strategies to deal with certain situations.
We can’t change our genes but we can learn to recognize stress and develop coping mechanisms to deal with it.
Ways to deal with stress and improve sleep
A change in diet: A reduction of ones intake of caffeine, alcohol and sugar can correct the body’s hormone balance and decrease anxiety.
Music: Listening to calming music or nature sounds can relax the mind and body after a stressful day and prepare oneself for a good night’s sleep.
Pets: A pet can make an excellent companion and has been shown to reduce heart disease and increase the lifetime of pet owners.
Yoga and Mediation: Just 30 minutes a day of light exercise or meditation can relax you and focus your mind on the more important things in life.
Herbal remedies: Herbs such as camomile and passion flower have been used for centuries as an aid to sleep.
Sleep is an important part of our day and prepares us for the challenges ahead. A good night’s sleep improves our judgement and better equips us for dealing with what would otherwise be stressful situations.