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Does Stress Prevent Sleep?

Feb 01, 2022

There's no denying that all of us have experienced an increased amount of stress over the last two years. 

A study done by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association (APA) found that one-third of Americans are finding it more stressful to make day-to-day decisions (36%) and major life decisions (35%) as compared with before the coronavirus pandemic

Whether short or long-term, stress can have many effects on our overall health and well-being, including how much sleep we are getting on a nightly basis. 

What is stress?

Stress is the physical and emotional reaction to challenging situations in life. It often makes us feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with emotional and mental pressures. 

According to the APA, there are three types of stress:

Acute stress

Short-term stress that accompanies quick moments of panic or dread, like when you miss a deadline. 

Symptoms include:

  • racing heart

  • a rise in blood pressure 

  • migraine 

  • chest pain

  • irritability

  • anxiety

  • back pain

  • stomach issues

These symptoms often appear for a short period and decrease when the stress subsides

Episodic Acute Stress

Episodic Acute Stress happens when you have frequent episodes of stress. This kind of stress can occur when you take on too many projects or responsibilities.

Some symptoms may include:

  • feeling rushed and disorganized

  • increased cholesterol

  • high blood sugar

  • high blood pressure

  • digestive problems

  • memory issues

  • weight gain

  • depression

  • anxiety

Without treatment or proper management, Episodic Acute Stress can turn into Chronic Stress. 

Chronic Stress 

Chronic Stress is constantly feeling overwhelmed and pressured for an extended period of time. It often stems from life problems out of our control, like childhood trauma, poverty, and war. Many people describe Chronic Stress as feeling stuck all of the time. 

Symptoms for Chronic Stress include:

  • body aches and pains

  • insomnia 

  • withdrawing from social settings

  • low energy

  • inability to focus 

  • change in appetite

  • alcohol or drug abuse

  • emotional withdrawal

How does untreated stress affect the body?

Unless a person finds ways to manage chronic stress, it can contribute to many health problems.

Stress, especially Chronic Stress, increases the risk of health conditions, including digestive issues, hypertension, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, Type II diabetes, arthritis, headaches, obesity, stress-induced asthma attacks, and mood disorders like depression and anxiety. 

How stress affects sleep

Prolonged stress can cause an increased release of more of the hormone cortisol. As a result, our bodies go into flight or fight mode and have trouble going into a deep sleep as a survival mechanism.

As stress impacts our sleep, there's also an increased risk of sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea

Getting sleep while dealing with stressful life situations

Stress and sleep go hand in hand. So, while stress can prevent sleep, lack of sleep can increase stress. Studies have found that over 20% of adults feel more stressed when they don't get enough sleep. 

Therefore, it's critical to ensure you get enough quality sleep, even when life gets chaotic. If you find yourself lying awake or waking up multiple times thanks to insomnia and stress, here are some things that can help:

  • Prescription sleep aids- Medications like Eszopiclone (Lunesta), Ramelteon (Rozerem), Temazepam(Restoril), and Zolpidem (Ambien) allow you to go to sleep, stay asleep, or both. These drugs are only available when prescribed by your doctor. Always consult with your doctor and pharmacist about potential side effects and risks of forming a dependence on these drugs. You should never take sleep aids not prescribed for you. 

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I)-Helps manage or eliminate negative thoughts and actions that keep you awake. It can include stimulus control therapy, relaxation techniques, sleep restriction, remaining passively awake, and light therapy.

  • Creating good sleep hygiene- Evaluate your current sleep habits and see what could use improvements. Things like having a routine nighttime schedule and an optimal sleeping environment (comfortable temperature, lack of light and distractions, etc.) can significantly improve your sleep hygiene.

  • Getting to the root cause- Working with your doctor, mental health counselor, or other healthcare professional to discover what is causing you stress and anxiety and find ways to manage them can significantly improve your overall sleep health. 

Key takeaways

There's no doubt we all will feel stressed at some point in our lives. As we come out of a pandemic and transition to a new normal, we can expect to experience stress more frequently and for more extended periods. 

However, finding ways to manage stress and create good sleeping habits can help improve your overall mental and physical well-being. 

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