Stress and Insomnia

Paula H. Cookson LCSW
woman with insomnia

Everyone has a sleepless night now and then. If you have frequent insomnia and also experience a high degree of stress and anxiety on a regular basis, they may be connected.

How Stress Can Impact Sleep

Stress releases a hormone in your body called cortisol, which is a stimulating hormone preparing you for action. While cortisol is an important hormone in the body that helps it function, it normally decreases throughout the day and should be minimal at night as you wind down toward sleep. When cortisol continues to disperse at night, it can keep you up like a poorly timed Starbucks Espresso.

Symptoms of Stress-Related Insomnia

Stress related insomnia is characterized by your brain's inability to shut itself off when you attempt to initiate sleep. You may experience obsessive thoughts about a certain issue going on in your life, and you may notice an inability to stop "problem solving" these issues, even though you really just want to sleep.

How to Manage Stress-Induced Insomnia

There are many ways to manage insomnia. What works for your friend may not work for you, so it is important to try a variety of techniques to find one that works.

Don't Freak Out

One of the most common reactions to insomnia is to become distressed about it. When you become upset about not sleeping, it reinforces the insomnia by creating more stress. What an evil paradox, right? Instead, try to accept the fact you are not falling asleep as easily as usual. If you start in with automatic thoughts about the dreadful consequences of a poor night's sleep, remind yourself that you will function tomorrow and get through it, like any other day. When you allow the negative assumptions to take over, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Create a Stress-List

If you are obsessing over a variety of concerns, write them out. Create three columns on paper: Situation, Emotions, and What I'm Doing About it. In the first column list the stressful situations in your life, in the second, your feeling about those issues and third, what you are doing to resolve it. Some of the issues you may not be able to resolve, and sometimes just the act of acknowledging that can be powerful. Maybe you have done all you can, or perhaps you aren't ready to take action yet. The act of listing your stressors in this format is useful and gives you credit for what you are doing. It also sorts out the varying things on your mind that may be contributing to your insomnia.

Get Up

One of the worst things you can do for insomnia is to stay in bed, tossing and turning for hours.

If you have been laying in bed for longer than ten minutes without any signs of sleep emerging, get up and go to another room. Have a pre-determined plan for your time, such as reading or some other low-stimulant activity (no video games or house cleaning).

When you begin to feel sleepy, return to bed and see if you can initiate sleep. It may take a while to retrain yourself, but this is a good way to prevent hours of tossing and turning, in which your brain can come up with more things to stress about.

Improve Your Sleep Hygiene

Use your bed only for sleep and sex. Don't work, study, go online, watch tv, fight with your partner or any other activities in bed, even if it seems harmless enough at the time. Your brain is a creature of habit, and it will work to create associations even when you don't intend for it to happen. If your brain begins to associate bed with work or other tasks, it will not transition into sleep mode as easily. Also, keep your room dark and at a moderate temperature, as these are conducive to good sleep. Maintain a consistent bedtime to establish a routine for mind and body. Keep your routine similar every night; have a cup of decaf tea, brush your teeth, read a book. The mind thrives on novelty so be boring. If you want a good night of sleep, maybe you should avoid embarking on a new or exciting hobby just before bed.

Use Relaxation Techniques

Use progressive muscle relaxation to release body tension that you may not even be aware you are holding. Listen to guided meditations to reduce stress as well as using deep breathing exercises to relax mind and body. EFT can be a useful technique to improve sleep issues through simple and strategic "tapping" points.

Talk With Your Doctor

Some sleep issues are related to physiological changes in your body. Menopause can interfere with sleep, and there are other conditions that can decrease melatonin production in your brain, in turn decreasing your ability to become adequately sleepy. Sleep studies offer a lot of information about your physiological state during sleep and may shed some light on what is going on for you if your insomnia becomes frequent.

When to Seek Professional Help

If your insomnia is worsening and you feel as though your life is being negatively impacted, you should see a trained professional, such as a doctor or psychotherapist. Depression, anxiety and other mental health factors can interfere with sleep patterns, so these issues should be explored if your stress and insomnia continue. Behavioral methods, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) and ACT for Insomnia offer practical solutions that will help you return to a normal sleep pattern.

Stress and Insomnia