sleep and stress
sleep and stress

Can sleep reduce stress?

We all know that sleep is extremely important. But can sleep reduce stress? Is it a key factor in mental health? The answer is simple: Yes, sleep reduces stress. It improves symptoms of anxiety and depression and it helps us regulate our emotional response.

In order to understand how sleep can reduce stress, we must look at what stress is, and what influence it has on us.

What is stress?

We know how it feels, we know that it’s bad for us. We can feel it in our shoulders and in our jaw, but we can’t really explain what it is. Can we?

The Merriam Webster defines stress as being a factor that causes tension. So, stress is a strictly personal feeling, and each individual perceives it differently.

Even if it is such a personal experience, its results are clear and very factual.

Stress is derived from the flight and flight response. It is a milder form of a very powerful instinct and it changes how we feel, how we act and the hormones that are released in our blood stream.

Depending on the intensity of stress some of these changes will occur:

  • You will feel nervous, agitated or anxious;
  • Inability to stop thinking about the stressor;
  • Feeling tired without a good enough reason;
  • Your blood pressure and pulse will be higher;
  • Cortisol levels will spike;
  • Adrenaline levels will he higher;
  • Your memory will be worse;
  • The ability to focus will be lowered;
  • Insomnia and other sleep difficulties will arise.

There are many more symptoms of stress, and being stressed also reflects into our blood work, and can be very clear on an MRI scan.

What is the connection between sleep and stress?

Sleep has a very particular role in managing memory, hormones, emotions and relaxation. Sleep deficiency influences the way we manage stress, and this in turn leads to even more stress.

It was shown that even partial sleep deprivation (when the subjects slept at least 4 hours but less than 8) led to a higher level of cortisol the next day.

Cortisol is a stress hormone, and it triggers an avalanche of other reactions that otherwise we would feel if we were threatened – aka, in life threatening danger.

Thus, lack of sleep can “create” stress, while also maintaining it by taking away from us the ability to cope with challenges[1].

In cases of severe sleep deprivation, which for some people simply means that they didn’t sleep for one night or that they had under 4 hours of sleep, even the adrenaline level is higher.

Adrenaline is usually a “danger” hormone. – The one that the body uses to be able to run very fast or when we are in a fight.

In normal circumstances, adrenaline quickly dissipates, but with sleep deprivation there is a constant influx of adrenaline that is supposed to keep us awake to function.

The presence of adrenaline always translates into stress, no matter what causes the hormone’s spike.  

Can sleep reduce stress?

Sleep begins to reduce stress from the moment we start to doze off. But it’s crucial to sleep for an appropriate length of time to fully benefit from the full stress reducing capabilities of sleep.

During the first stage of sleep, the body starts to relax and this allows for better blood flow and for slight relaxation to begin. With each stage, we fall deeper into sleep, up to the deep sleep stage (the forth).

While in deep sleep, the brain waves are completely different than those we experience while being awake. This allows for our muscles to relax, the blood pressure and pulse to lower, hormones to be regulated and brain toxins to be eliminated.

Furthermore, during sleep, our memories are categorized and moved to long term memory.

As we emerge from deep sleep, we enter REM (Rapid eye movement) sleep. This is the phase in which we dream.

This stage of sleep seems to be particularly important in preventing stress from affecting us during the next day.

Also, REM sleep and the dreams that come along with it seem to have a major purpose in helping us adapt and cope with stress[i].

 How much sleep do we need in order to reduce stress?

Each individual has different needs, but the general consensus is that adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep/night.

The quality of sleep is also important because having constantly interrupted sleep means that you won’t be able to reach deep sleep and REM sleep in a normal fashion.

A sleep cycle, with all the 5 stages of sleep, lasts anywhere between 90 and 120 minutes. During this time we move through the stages and we start the cycle again and again until we are fully rested.

At the beginning of the night we spend more time in deep sleep. And towards morning we spend more time in REM sleep.

This happens because the brain prioritizes our needs and it has to first be able to allow us to heal and relax, and only then it starts helping us to cope with stress.

You can read more about the stages of sleep here, but the bottom line is that in order for sleep to reduce stress, it needs time.

What if I can’t fall asleep because I am too stressed?

There is a strong connection between stress and insomnia. It might be because those who are stressed, and who go through difficult situations aren’t able to silence their minds. They keep thinking about their problems. Does that sound familiar?

There are many ways to deal with trouble falling asleep. We dedicated an entire article to such solutions and we strongly encourage you to read it here.

Stress and sleep are so closely related that they influence one another. A person who is under a lot of stress will find it difficult to fall asleep. But sleep itself can be the best solution they have to fight stress. It is a vicious circle that can and should be broken.



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