August 20, 2022 6 min read

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SLEEP AND STRESS

Sleep, a crucial therapeutic component of human physiology, has long been recognized as critical to functioning, mental health, and a high quality of life. Stress is an important aspect of human biology because it permits humans to respond swiftly and decisively in difficult or dangerous situations. However, excessive stress can harm sleep and general health.

Sleep loss causes exhaustion, daytime drowsiness, and decreased neurocognitive performance.  Alotaibi et al. (2020) noted that sleep deprivation affects student cognitive function, particularly concentration and assessed work effort. Sleep is essential for improving working memory and consolidating memories. Chronic sleep deprivation impairs simple attention, detailed attention, working memory, and short-term memory.  The same study by Alotaibi et al. (2020) found prolonged psychological stress in college students with insomnia. Stress is another common problem among school-going individuals and affects sleep. Freire et al. (2020) noted that stress had been linked to poor academic performance, yet effective coping skills can help students overcome the detrimental effects of psychological discomfort.

What Is Stress

Stress is the physiological and emotional response of the body to a threat. When confronted with a stressful circumstance, the brain initiates the fight-or-flight response, which begins with producing chemicals such as adrenaline.  Yaribeygi et al. (2017) explained that these hormones increase blood pressure, muscle tension, respiration and heart rate, blood sugar, alertness, decreased insensitivity to pain and slowed digestion. These adjustments are intended to assist a person in confronting a challenge or fleeing to safety. The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is the second component of the stress response. The HPA axis is a hormonal cascade that includes cortisol, released in large amounts during stress. Cortisol redirects resources away from non-urgent processes, such as wound healing and immune system function, to assist the body in preparing to battle an immediate assailant. Stress is a useful tool in the evolutionary process. The quick-reaction stress response aided our ancestors in avoiding natural hazards. Even in modern life, stress can be beneficial. The rapid but brief feelings of acute or short-term stress aid in avoiding car accidents and motivate one to prepare for an important presentation or exam. Exposure to extended and recurrent stressors, such as marital problems or financial worries, leads to chronic stress, seriously affecting one's health. This is why it is critical to recognize and address frequent stress triggers and sources in daily life.

Sleep Stress Cycle

According to Lima et al. (2009), stress may interfere with quality sleep. Americans sleep an average of 6.7 hours each night, fewer than the minimum requirement of seven to nine hours. Furthermore, 42 percent of adults say their sleep quality is fair or poor, and 43 percent say stress has kept them awake at night in the last month. Many people say that when the length and quality of their sleep drops, so does their stress. There is a symbiotic relationship between stress and sleep. High amounts of stress can make it difficult to sleep, and insufficient or poor-quality sleep can cause maladaptive alterations in the stress response. Understanding the relationship between stress and sleep is the first step toward stopping this painful cycle.

How Stress Affects Sleep

Phan& Malkani (2019) showed that Chronic stress interferes with the body's internal clock, telling it when to sleep and wake up. Daytime stress raises the chance of having trouble falling asleep and poor sleep quality at night. Suchecki et al. (2012) suggested that Anxiety and stress can reduce deep and REM sleep, which is essential for mental and physical health. Dream patterns and emotional content are influenced by stress. Scheer et al. (2009) discovered that Cortisol, a stress hormone, influences the sleep-wake cycle. While cortisol generally decreases at night to prepare for sleep, research shows that those who have insomnia have higher levels at night, which is linked to more nighttime awakenings. High cortisol levels are caused by insomnia, while sleep problems raise cortisol levels. According to  Scheer et al. (2009), short-term insomnia is a natural reaction to a perceived threat. The fight-or-flight response induces physiological changes that interfere with sleep, such as:

Muscle Tension

Muscle tension is one of the hallmarks of stress reaction. In anticipation of impending harm or pain, the primary muscle groups in the body stiffen up. However, too much tension can obstruct the relaxation required for restful sleep.

Increased Heart Rates

Stress is commonly manifested by an increased heart rate and fast breathing. On the other hand, sound sleep necessitates the inverse - a decreased heart rate and breathing.

How Sleep Affects Stress

Morales et al.  (2019) reported that sleep deprivation substantially impacts stress levels and general mood. According to Schwarz et al. (2018), those who sleep better have fewer negative feelings and recover faster after a stressful event. Nakao (2010) noted that poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation are thought to alter stress-related indicators such as cortisol levels and systemic inflammation on a biological level. Cortisol levels appear to rise due to fragmented sleep or long-term sleep deprivation. Going to bed at times that are not in sync with typical sleep-wake rhythms might also affect cortisol levels.

Sleep Disorders Associated With Stress

 Wilson& Nutt (2008) indicated that sleep disorders impact sleep quality, amount, and schedule and produce odd sleep habits. Insomnia and sleep apnea, two common sleep problems, may be linked to stress.

Insomnia

Insomnia is a sleep condition marked by difficulties falling asleep, remaining asleep, or waking up too early. Following a sleepless night, insomniacs may feel foggy and tired. Stressful events and people who suffer from stressors are more likely to cause persistent insomnia. Insomnia that lasts longer than three months is considered chronic. Insomnia is associated with anxiety, sorrow, and PTSD. Insomnia can exacerbate anxiety about sleep, exacerbating the problem. There is ongoing learning about the relationship between stress and sleep deprivation. The main factor influencing your sleep is how much stress you are under. Some people have low sleep reactivity, which means they are not disturbed by stress. On the other hand, stress has been shown to affect sleep quality in persons with high sleep reactivity. Stress-induced insomnia affects people who have high sleep responsiveness.

Conclusion

Stress is the body's response to physiological and mental threats and helps keep one alert. Chronic stress is defined as one lasting longer than three months and influences how we sleep. Sleep and stress are directly correlated, and being out of balance with one can affect the other. Sleep deprivation increases the chances of being stressed as it impacts mood levels, while high levels of stress can influence the circadian rhythm, impacting sleep quality. Therefore, it is important to monitor oneself to ensure one is not interfering with the other.

References

Alotaibi, A. D., Alosaimi, F. M., Alajlan, A. A., & Abdulrahman, K. A. B. (2020). The relationship between sleep quality, stress, and academic performance among medical students. Journal of family & community medicine27(1), 23.

Freire, C., Ferradás, M. D. M., Regueiro, B., Rodríguez, S., Valle, A., & Núñez, J. C. (2020). Coping strategies and self-efficacy in university students: A person-centered approach. Frontiers in psychology11, 841.

Lima, P. F., Medeiros, A. L. D. D., Rolim, S. A. M., Júnior, S. A. D., Almondes, K. M., & Araújo, J. F. (2009). Changes in sleep habits of medical students according to class starting time: a longitudinal study. Sleep science2(2), 92-95.

Morales, J., Yáñez, A., Fernández-González, L., Montesinos-Magraner, L., Marco-Ahulló, A., Solana-Tramunt, M., & Calvete, E. (2019). Stress and autonomic response to sleep deprivation in medical residents: A comparative cross-sectional study. PloS one14(4), e0214858.

Nakao, M. (2010). Work-related stress and psychosomatic medicine. BioPsychoSocial medicine4(1), 1-8.

Phan, T. X., & Malkani, R. G. (2019). Sleep and circadian rhythm disruption and stress intersect in Alzheimer's disease. Neurobiology of stress10, 100133.

  Adverse metabolic and cardiovascular consequences of circadian misalignment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences106(11), 4453-4458.

Schwarz, J., Gerhardsson, A., van Leeuwen, W., Lekander, M., Ericson, M., Fischer, H., ... & Åkerstedt, T. (2018). Does sleep deprivation increase the vulnerability to acute psychosocial stress in young and older adults?. Psychoneuroendocrinology96, 155-165.

Suchecki, D., Tiba, P. A., & Machado, R. B. (2012). REM sleep rebound as an adaptive response to stressful situations. Frontiers in neurology3, 41.

Wilson, S., & Nutt, D. (2008). Sleep disorders. Oxford University Press.

Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI journal16, 1057.