Posted by Nicole on March 10, 2020

Lying awake at 3 in the morning and staring at the clock, your body buzzes with fatigue, your heart thumping. When will you ever get to sleep?

If you don’t fall asleep, you’ll be sleep-deprived all day tomorrow, and then you’ll feel really stressed and anxious.

Sure enough, the very thought of not being able to sleep keeps you wide awake. By the next morning, you’re an absolute wreck.

If this sounds familiar, you may be caught in the vicious cycle of stress and sleep deprivation.

What is the relationship between sleep and stress? Is it stress that is causing your insomnia, or insomnia that is causing your stress? What can you do to get back to restful, restorative sleep and calmer, relaxed days and nights?

Does Stress Cause Insomnia, or Does Insomnia Cause Stress?

The Sleep Foundation reports that stress can cause insomnia and insomnia can cause stress. The foundation writes:

“Stress induces a range of bodily reactions in the brain and nervous system, endocrine (hormone) system, and immune system. Experts have increasingly come to identify the specific elements of the stress response that contribute to what is known as a state of hyperarousal in which the brain and body operate as if “on alert.” Hyperarousal has come to be seen as a central underlying driver of insomnia.”

So, yes—if you are stressed enough to be “hyperaroused,” that could keep you awake at night.

The Sleep Foundation also states:

“Yes, insomnia can play a part in contributing to stress. Sleep deprivation affects mood, making someone more likely to be short-tempered, frustrated, and irritable. All of these things can create tension and heighten the risk of getting stressed out. At the same time, insomnia can exacerbate stress because it creates a new stressor (sleeping problems) and because it provides a person with additional time -- such as when they are lying awake in bed -- to fret about the problems that they are facing, reinforcing their state of hyperarousal.”

So, indeed, if you are losing sleep, that can make you more stressed out.

Additionally, Dan G. Blazer, a psychiatrist at Duke Health, has commented on a relevant study, saying:

“These investigators from Norway have documented that insomnia may predispose people to anxiety and depression, just as anxiety and depression may predispose people to insomnia. As the authors note, insomnia may be an early or even the first symptom of depression and anxiety. Clinicians and their patients should take note."

So, it is not just general stress which can get involved with the vicious cycle of insomnia, but also depression and anxiety.

Indeed, it is hard to entirely delineate in some cases between insomnia and stressed psychological states.

As this research explains:

“In insomnia, which is a very common sleep disorder, objective sleep measures, EEG activity, physiologic findings, HPA axis activity and inflammation markers suggest that it is not a state of sleep loss, but a disorder of hyperarousal present both during the night and the daytime. Several psychological and physiological factors contribute to the onset and perpetuation of insomnia, such as anxious-ruminative personality traits, stressful events, age-related sleep homeostasis weakening mechanisms, menopause and biologic – genetic diathesis of CNS hyperarousal.”

So, it may be helpful to redefine how you think about insomnia. Rather than thinking of insomnia only as a failure to sleep at night, it may make more sense to view it as an overall condition which affects you both day and night.

If you are afflicted with anxiety or stress or depression, the same state of hyperarousal which keeps you up at night is also probably plaguing you during the day.

How Can You Fight Back Against Stress and Insomnia?

Now you understand more about the interrelationships between stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia. But how can you interrupt this vicious cycle and return to regular sleep cycles? Following are some suggestions.

  • Keep regular habits. It is easiest to fall asleep each night if your body isn't kept guessing by constant adjustments in your sleep schedule. If possible, go to bed each night at the same time and wake up each morning at the same time.
  • Use your sleep windows. It is easier or harder to fall asleep at different times of night for different people. For example, you might notice that it is always easier to fall asleep between 11 PM and midnight then it is between midnight and 1 AM, or vice versa. Take note of these windows of opportunity and pattern your sleep schedule around them.
  • Get more exercise. Don’t work out a lot? Think about exercising at least several days a week. Doing so can help to alleviate stress and anxiety and also can improve sleep cycles.
  • Improve sleep hygiene. If distractions in your environment are part of what keep you awake at night, try and reduce or eliminate these distractions through better sleep hygiene. This means sleeping on a comfortable, supportive mattress, keeping your room temperate and dark, and sleeping with silence or white noise as you prefer. Sleep hygiene also entails sleep-conducive habits such as not eating large meals right before bedtime.
  • Engage in activities that reduce stress. There are numerous activities you can try which can potentially help you to reduce your stress levels. Anything from meditation to exercise to crafts to video games to reading a book each evening can help you wind down from the day.
  • Take supplements to support your adrenal system and healthy sleep cycles. To support healthy cortisol levels, consider taking ashwagandha, magnesium, rhodiola, magnolia bark, Phosphatidylserine, or a combination. Ashwagandha and magnesium also promote healthy sleep cycles, as do 5-HTP, l-theanine, melatonin and vitamin B6.

Conclusion: You Can Disrupt the Vicious Cycle of Insomnia and Stress

We have talked about how stress and insomnia feed into each other, and represent two aspects of a chronic condition of hyperarousal during the day and night.

But we have also discussed simple changes you can make to your lifestyle and supplements you can take to counteract stress and restore healthy, regular sleep cycles.

It takes time to establish new, healthy patterns and for your body and brain to reset. So, do not give up if you do not see the results you're looking for right away.

Reductions in stress levels and improvements in sleep are likely to be gradual. But if you stick with your new habits, over time, you may see a dramatic change for the better in your life.