We’ve all experienced that frustrating time during our life when sleep simply evades us. It doesn’t matter how exhausted you feel, because as soon as your head hits the pillow, a riot of thoughts appear. A cacophony of mental noise. A rave in the brain. Game over. The problem is that the more we think about it and over-analyse our lack of sleep, the less likely we are to switch off.
It can become a vicious cycle too. You wake up feeling tired and stressed before the day’s even begun. You feel out of control, and life feels overwhelming. Even the simplest of tasks seem almost unmanageable. And guess what, by the time evening comes around again, you’re so over-tired and anxious that the same thing happens all over again, in some cases, night after night.
Why Do We Need Sleep
There’s so much more to sleep than just re-energising the body. Although much is still unknown about sleep, what’s certain is that getting the right amount of deep sleep is one of the pillars of good health.
That’s because sleep, especially deep sleep, is the time when physical recovery takes place. It’s the time when certain hormones and proteins are released, tissue growth and repair happen, blood sugar levels and metabolism balance out, the immune system re-energises, and cellular energy is restored. It’s not just about physical processes either. Sleep is also the time when new learnings, thoughts, feelings, and emotions are processed and stored, memories are consolidated, and the brain detoxifies itself of waste.
Not Getting Enough Sleep
When we don’t get enough deep sleep, our body doesn’t function optimally and sleep deprivation kicks in. Experts refer to this as sleep insufficiency or sleeplessness and alertness, performance, and health suffer due to not enough and/or a poor quality of sleep. Sleep deprivation can affect us in the following ways:
- Finding it difficult to fall asleep
- Lying awake for long periods
- Waking up several times
- Waking up early and being unable to get back to sleep
- Feeling depressed or having a lower mood
- Finding it difficult to concentrate
- Feeling irritable
- Feeling like you haven’t slept when you wake up in the morning.
- Making poor food choices
- Poor hand-eye coordination
- Poor memory
- Lack of energy
- Increased risk of some serious illnesses or medical conditions (including obesity and heart disease)
How Stress Affects Sleep
Stress and sleep have a direct relationship with one another. Stress can adversely affect the duration and quality of sleep. On the other-hand, poor sleep can increase stress. Both stress and lack of sleep can affect our physical and mental health. Luckily, improving one aspect can improve the other.
So, why does stress affect sleep so much? It’s largely because the stress response releases adrenaline and cortisol. In the early days of our evolution, this served a survival purpose because it increased the heart rate, circulating blood to muscles and organs so that humans were ready to either defend themselves or run away from danger.
The fight or flight response is no longer needed against sabre-toothed tigers but it has evolved to the 21st century. We perceive different threats to pose a danger and this autonomic response can now be triggered by issues like workload, family, or relationship difficulties. Experiencing this heightened state of alertness promotes rapid or anxious thoughts meaning it’s more difficult to relax enough for sleep. If you’re suffering from stress or anxiety, chances are that your sleep quality is poor.
Fortunately, there are many things that you can do that have the dual-purpose of managing stress and improving sleep. Taking up mindfulness, meditation, exercise, or yoga, adopting a healthier diet, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, having counselling, listening to sleep hypnotherapy, creating a relaxing, wind-down evening routine, and coming off social media and screens a few hours before bedtime. These are all things that can reduce your stress levels and help you to prepare your body for sleep.
Creating a relaxing bedroom environment is another thing that can help. A mattress topper, temperature-controlled bedding, or a silk pillowcase. Just some of the changes you could consider. They might seem insignificant but feeling comfortable, at the right temperature and secure in bed is a big factor in achieving your sleep goals. These might seem like small differences but they can lead to a big improvement in sleep quality.