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In this post In take a look at the interaction between stress and insomnia.

If you are both stressed and not sleeping well, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees (not least because you are completely drained by daytime stress and night time sleep deprivation). 
Is stress causing your insomnia or the other way around?  Where should you start –  tackle your sleep or reduce your stress?

Stress can cause insomnia but not everyone who is stressed has sleeping difficulties.

The reverse is also true: insomnia isn’t always caused by stress. It can be triggered by a variety of other factors, including positive events. This is quite common among high performers; the positive vibes they get from their work keep them buzzing into the night. I even had a client once say to me ” Life’s too short to sleep!”

That said, chronic stress will very often lead to sleep problems. 

Everyone has the odd night where something keeps them awake. You go over and over a difficult conversation you had that day perhaps, or keep running through your presentation for an important meeting in the morning. Be warned however – if the odd night of broken sleep turns into a pattern and you start to feel out of control at work on a daily basis – you are on the path to both chronic stress and insomnia. 

The stress response, often known as fight-flight, is nature’s way of protecting us from harm. It’s designed to be a powerful, short-term response, marshaling physical and mental capacities to overcome a perceived threat to our wellbeing.

Fight-flight evolved back in the day when we lived in caves and were surrounded by very real threats to survival such as marauding wild beasts and human rivals. 
The fight-fight response hasn’t changed over time – but our stress triggers certainly have. Modern stressors, especially in economically rich countries, are usually emotional and psychological rather than physical. Yet our bodies still respond in the same fashion – gearing us up to run like hell or stand and deliver. 

It does this by flooding the body with powerful chemicals to mobilize the cardiovascular system and deliver oxygen-rich blood to major muscle groups. That’s why when you experience stress – either temporarily or longer term – you might notice your heart beats harder and faster. 

I always notice the impact of fight-flight if I’m driving on the motorway and have to suddenly accelerate hard to overtake a huge truck that’s decided to swing out unexpectedly. I respond quickly, immediately tuning out any conversation from my companion or the radio.  As I reach safety again, I notice my heart rate has soared and as, it steadies, I feel a sense of momentary weakness, as the response washes through me. 

When you consider the purpose of fight-flight, it’s no surprise that it’s completely incompatible with relaxation and sleep. 

Quite simply, you don’t want to sleep if there’s a wild animal around!  

Now as I said earlier, these days it’s more likely to be psychological/emotional  stressors that get to us. Moving house, divorce, work, relationship difficulties, money worries…all are well known stressors. The threat you perceive doesn’t necessarily have to be real or imminent either.  

Next time you find yourself worrying, ask yourself: 

Am I worrying about something that has already happened or is it yet to happen? 

Chances are that a lot of the time your worries will be future-based. Will I be made redundant? How will I cope with caring for my elderly parent? What if the client doesn’t like what I propose? Will my son/daughter be OK?

Whatever the threat to your wellbeing – real or imaginary – the control centres of the brain fire up fight-flight and will not allow you to rest. It will be all systems go, a state of hyper-arousal. 

This is all fine – as long as you only stay there for a short time i.e the time it should take you to escape a rampaging tiger or defeat an aggressive neighbour. 

That sadly is so often not the case. Stress continues day after day. It’s this chronic stress which is so damaging for health and makes sound sleep just a distant memory.  

Nature has very thoughtfully given us a nervous system that is divided into two branches. The sympathetic branch co-ordinates activity and the other, the parasympathetic, acts as a balance, bringing rest, relaxation and recovery.

We are designed to cycle between the two with periods of activity (physical, mental) followed by rest and recovery. We’re not meant to get stuck in either mode. This cycling gives all the systems of the body a chance to re-balance, to repair and be ready for action again.

Sleep plays an absolutely essential part in this recovery and repair. Get anything less than seven good hours a night and you compromise this process. 

When you are chronically stressed, the sympathetic system continually fires up and disturbs the natural daily flow between wakefulness and sleepiness. 

In an attempt to cope with the stress and lack of sleep, you may try to adapt your lifestyle. 

You may drink more caffeine in an attempt to boost your energy to get through the day. In an attempt to unwind in the evening, you might drink more than usual. Both have disastrous effects on sleep. Caffeine blocks the mechanism that allows sleepiness to naturally arise; alcohol disturbs the quality of your zzzzs.

You may also stop seeing friends or pursuing your hobbies – activities that were once an enjoyable way to de-stress. You might withdraw from your family as you just don’t feel you have the patience or capacity to be sociable. You’re may feel that you just don’t have the energy to go to the gym anymore or do all the other stuff that used to help you unwind after a busy day. 

Gradually, the healthy buffers you had between work and home, keeping stresses in their place and providing plenty of opportunities for rest and recovery, are eroded. 

So it becomes a vicious circle of stress.  Sleep deficiency, lowered resilience to cope, poorer emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing all conspire together.  

All pretty grim. 

And I don’t want you to stay there a moment longer than necessary.

So let’s come back to my initial question:

Where should you start –  tackle your sleep or reduce your stress? 

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question.
However…whereas it might take you some time to figure out how to reduce your work or home stress, sleep can be tackled immediately. 

For sure, you’ll need to learn some specific skills to re-build a sound sleep habit. Many of these skills will also be very beneficial to your daytime stress levels. Given the right input and motivation, most people can achieve this pretty quickly in my experience. 

Once you learn how to get more, better quality sleep, your resilience immediately starts to grow. You’re far more able to think rationally within a reasonable perspective. 

From this place you will be far better equipped to tackle the factors underpinning the chronic stress in your life.

And I have some exciting news for you. I’m busy working on my new Sleep Well Fundamentals online course with a launch date of later this Spring.  It could be just the thing you need to start getting your sleep – and maybe also your life – back on your terms. Subscribe below to my Sleep Well updates to get news of the launch.

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