With the lifestyle we have adopted over the last few decades, stress has become part of our daily lives. Especially in big cities, no one is not stressed. One of the clearest consequences of stress is lack of sleep and insomnia.
In this blog we will try to understand what stress is and what is its relationship with sleep. Plus, you'll find some tips for getting to sleep even under stressful conditions. What is stress?
Stress is a very generic term that encompasses all kinds of threats, real or perceived, to our psychological or physiological integrity (and often a threat to life!). Note that here we already have an important definition: stress does not just refer to our behavior and psychological aspects, but to our entire body.
As stress is a threat to our body, it must always generate a response. This is generally a good thing, as it allows us to try to deal with and defeat the threat, whatever it may be. But sometimes the response can get out of hand and then we start having negative results.
We can classify stress according to its origin, between organic (or biogenic) stressors and psychological (or psychosocial) stressors. Regardless of the type of stress, the response is always very similar and with the same purpose: preparing our bodies to react to danger. For this, several things happen:
· Increased blood pressure and heart rate:
The heart needs to beat harder and faster to deliver blood, oxygen and nutrients to the brain and muscles.
· Breathing is faster
To ensure sufficient oxygen for the body in a dangerous situation.
· The amount of sugar in the blood (blood glucose) increases
If we need to react to a dangerous situation (running or fighting, for example), sugar will be an important source of energy.
· Increased alertness and attention
If we are in danger, it is important to be aware of everything that happens around us. This increases attention and sleep goes away.
All this happens with the help of two main hormones: cortisol and adrenaline, which are called “stress hormones”. Why is stress important?
Although we always associate stress with something bad, stress responses are essential to our body and important for us to react to stressful situations, especially for major acute threats. Let's think about some types of acute stresses:
· You were mugged
· You received very bad news
· You are exercising
· You were injured in an accident
· You have found a snake or other wild animal
· You are walking down a dark, deserted and dangerous street
In all these cases, the stress response is very important, as it ensures that we are able to react to the problem immediately, overcoming it. That's why we say that the stress response is adaptive, as it allows us to adapt to these situations.
But it's important to note that as soon as the stress is gone, the response ends and our entire body starts functioning normally again. In short: the stress response is essential in acute cases.
When is stress an issue?
The stress response was developed throughout evolution to make us react to acute stresses, particularly physiological ones. However, the lifestyle of the last decades has made us go through a new type of stress: chronic psychological stress.
These stresses are caused by psychological, behavioral or social factors. More importantly, these stresses usually don't resolve quickly (like the acute stresses we talked about earlier), tending to recur for many days at a time. Some examples of chronic psychosocial stresses are:
· You are in financial trouble
· You have family or marital problems
· You live in a dangerous region
· You are in a situation of social vulnerability
· You experience abusive relationships at work or school
· You suffer prejudice, bullying or systemic intimidation
· You go through a period of work overload or mental overload
In all these cases our body detects stress and triggers the same response. However, unlike acute stresses, these chronic psychosocial stresses do not last overnight.
If you're exposed to one of these stresses today, you'll go through all the changes we've mentioned before, but the problem won't go away. In fact, it will repeat itself, and repeat, and repeat, day after day. That is why we say that the chronic stress response is maladaptive, as it does not adapt or solve the problem.
Let's take an example of a lady who lives on the outskirts of the city, spends a lot of time commuting to work and getting there has to deal with an abusive and disrespectful boss. This woman is having stress responses all the time! And as the situation will repeat itself every day, it will have the same answers every day.
When we understand that the response repeats itself daily, we begin to understand why chronic stress is a problem. Precisely because the effects that should happen sporadically, to solve specific problems, start to be repeated for a long time.
And that's exactly why stress leads to problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety and insomnia.
Relationship between sleep and stress
As part of that normal stress reaction, it's natural for us to lose sleep during a period of acute stress. Imagine that tomorrow morning you will have a test at school, that you will have a job interview, or that you will have a very important meeting. It's natural for you to spend the night awake.
Staying alert and awake is part of a normal response to responding to dangers and threats. With that, the brain is activated and “turned on”.
The problem is that in cases of chronic stress, this same response will occur every day. This turns out to be a lot like what happens in cases of anxiety (and in fact, anxiety and stress always go hand in hand).
Imagine that you are experiencing financial difficulties. Tonight you won't sleep thinking about the bills to pay. Tomorrow, you will not sleep again for the same reason. The day after tomorrow, same thing. And so on. And that's exactly how insomnia sets in.
There is also the problem of associating the bedroom and bed with the stresses and anxieties of life. If you are living in a difficult situation, it seems that it is just as you go to bed that all the problems come to mind.
And then you start getting anxious about everything you have to solve the next day. Then your brain fires and sleep goes away. If this is repeated for a few days, the result will be that your brain will “learn” that the bed is precisely the place to solve problems and plan the day. That way, all you have to do is lie down in bed and your brain will fire and sleep will be sent away.
Finally, in addition to chronic psychological stresses, sleep deprivation is a stress in itself and triggers all these responses in our body. There is no sleep deprivation that doesn't cause stress. Therefore, people who have extended working hours, night workers and all people who are sleep deprived for any reason are always in a stressful condition.
If you are experiencing stressful situations, you can try to sleep better. In principle, there are two big alternatives: eliminating the source of stress in your life or changing the way you deal with stress.
Eliminating the source of stress
Think of a workaholic corporate executive who works a double shift and consider that he has had spikes in high blood pressure and tachycardia. His cardiologist says the cause is stress and that if he doesn't change his lifestyle he will likely have a heart attack soon. This situation of changing your lifestyle is very complicated, as it requires a commitment to change.
There is no medicine that will treat hypertension if this person continues to be exposed to the same stresses. The “remedy” is to move away from the source of stress: in this case, decreasing the workload or changing jobs.
The same analogy holds for stress-related insomnia. There is no treatment without compromise. And in this case too, the remedies have limited effectiveness. The ideal is to promote changes in routine and move away from the cause of stress, preventing it from interfering with your sleep.
For this the initial step is to identify what is the real source of insomnia and why it takes your sleep. Then it is possible to assess whether it is really possible to get away from it. For example, for stresses caused by work overload or abusive corporate relationships, the best “treatment” would be to change jobs or reduce the workload.
But it is understandable that this is not feasible for everyone, as it can generate secondary stresses; for example, exchanging the stress of an unfavorable work environment for the stress of unemployment.
Assess well what the sources of your stress are and consider whether it is possible to move away from it. Often this decision may not be easy, as it may imply losses, although the greater gain in quality of life and better quality sleep may be greater.
Changing the way you handle stress
In some cases, we cannot easily move away from sources of stress. But in these cases, we can try to recontextualize the way we look at them. Psychological stresses are very subjective, and things that are very stressful for some can be neutral for others.
This means that we can reconsider how we interpret and react to stresses.
This reframing of conditions that make us stressed can be worked on in therapy, and techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and Mindfulness can be of great help. What is important is that we are able to identify the sources of stress, that we know how to interpret when conditions cannot be changed easily, and that we can adapt our response to problems.
Tips for better sleep under stressful conditions
If you are experiencing stressful situations, or if you know that stress directly affects the quality of your sleep, there are some tips that can help!
· Plan your day in advance
Leaving to think about your day when you're already in bed can be a no-return to insomnia. Instead, a few hours before bedtime, plan your day in as much detail as possible. If possible, do this with pen and paper, or in your diary. Once you have everything planned, you can go to bed with a more “empty” head.
· Prepare for more stressful days
If you know you will have a stressful activity in your routine, prepare for it days in advance. For example, don't leave to study for an exam or prepare for a meeting the day before. Do this with ease throughout the days leading up to this event, so that you arrive the day before more confident and can sleep well.
· Avoid stimulating foods and drinks.
Stay as far away from caffeine, energy drinks and other stimulant drinks as possible. They can worsen insomnia and be a trigger for anxiety.
· If you wake up in the middle of the night, get out of bed
If you wake up in the middle of the night with a problem and can't sleep again, get out of bed. Come back only when sleep has returned. This is to prevent us from associating bed with a stressful environment.
· Work out
But do this preferably in the morning or afternoon. Exercise close to bedtime can make sleep worse.
· Have a relaxation routine
Our brain needs to turn off little by little so we can sleep. It is an illusion to think that we will work in high performance until 10 pm, and that at 10:10 pm we will be sleeping peacefully. Instead, establish a gradual relaxation routine. About 1 to 2 hours before bed, start to dim the lights in the house, move away from your cell phone and computer, take a relaxing shower, have a light meal, have some tea and get ready for bed. This routine will make your brain learn that bedtime is coming.
· Do relaxing activities
Listening to music, reading a book, praying or meditating help with the relaxation routine. There is no rule and each person should find the activity that makes them most relaxed.
This type of therapy is currently the main treatment for insomnia. Through this approach, it is possible to reassess maladaptive habits and beliefs about sleep, trying to change them for the benefit of a good night's sleep. SleepUp offers CBT through its app, and it can be a great alternative for you to start dealing with anxiety and stress, lessening the impact they have on your sleep.