S2:E16 | How does stress affect sleep?

broken sleep parasomnias podcast season 2 stress stress dreams
How does stress affect sleep?

Most people know that stress can affect sleep, but do you know how specifically sleep can be affected? Do you know the different ways that stress can show itself in your sleep? In this episode I will explain all the different indicators that suggest stress is interfering in the quantity or quality of your sleep.

Listen in now …


Hello and welcome back to the Sleep Seekers Podcast, I’m your host Emma Ashford. 

So we are now in Stress Awareness Month, the whole of April is actually Stress Awareness Month so here on the podcast I am going to be dedicating the next few weeks to the subjects of sleep and stress. 

Stress is the most common reason for disturbances in sleep but stress is obviously a big topic all on it’s own. There are so many different causes and roots to this thing we call stress and there are so many different ways that stress can show up in your life. 

Most people can say that their sleep has been affected by stress at some point - I know I certainly can. Whether it be that you are nervous about a meeting the next day and you spend half the night awake thinking about it, or you feel overwhelmed and overloaded and you have a week of really broken sleep that then leaves you feeling more tired and overwhelmed. 

These examples are fairly standard and not at all uncommon unfortunately in this modern world we live in. 

And when it happens in isolation, every now and then, it tends not to feel like a big deal. Annoying maybe but nothing to worry about and it passes pretty quickly. 

But for many people, this stress affected sleep is a really regular occurrence that leaves you in a significant sleep deficit and therefore impacts on mood, productivity, mental health and overall quality of life

And worse than that, having a period of sleep being impacted by stress is often the gateway to developing a bigger, more significant sleep problem or insomnia. This is usually because the fragmented sleep patterns become a habit of the mind and the body or because you start to worry about sleep or expect to be laid awake and this develops a bigger problem. It can be hard to not get caught in this trap - this is why I am really passionate on teaching about sleep and giving people the skills and strategies which stop sleep problems from developing in the first place. 

So, the impact on sleep from stress really matters and is important to be educated on. 


So how exactly does stress affect sleep?

Very simply, heightened levels of stress means that there are heightened levels of stress hormones … and it is these stress hormones that interfere with the sleep hormones and cause a problem with sleep. I usually describe it that stress hormones push away melatonin which is your body’s natural sleep hormone, therefore making sleep harder to come by. It is normally through relaxation and ‘wind down’ at the end of the day which makes lots of lovely space for melatonin, making sleep the next natural consequence.  

So how do you know if your sleep is affected by stress? You are not always aware of stress and the impact it might be having on your sleep but there are multiple ways you might see stress coming out in sleep, lots of clues if you like.  


The first is that stress will often delay sleep onset - meaning that it takes longer to get to sleep. You probably feel tired but sleep just won’t seem to come. Often this will lead to frustration, you might get up for a bit and go and do something else, or start to panic about being sleep deprived tomorrow. 

Taking longer than usual to get to sleep is a good indicator that you are being affected by stress.


Secondly, sleep will often become more fragmented when you are affected by stress. This means that you will wake up more often during the night, you might spend periods of time awake and generally feel more restless. You might feel like the night is going on forever because you don’t seem to be able to properly ‘switch off’. Or, you might wake early in the morning and not be able to get back to sleep. It is not uncommon to wake at 3,4,5am and not be able to get back to sleep, usually until just before your alarm. These are all indicators of stress affecting sleep. It can however take a trained eye to be able to tell these indicators apart from what could be indicating other sleep issues - this is what sleep assessments are for and why I offer that service to look at your sleep in detail - I will link sleep assessments in the show notes if this is something you might be interested in. 


Third, stress can show itself in your sleep. This will often mean that you don’t access deep sleep in the way you normally would - your sleep stays more on the surface. You might be aware of dreaming more, feeling that you are thinking in your sleep or are barely even asleep at all. You might find you dream a lot about the thing you are stressed about, have nightmares or have stress dreams - those delightful dreams about things like being in a meeting naked, being late for something or where people and places are all muddled up and it might leave you feeling out of control.

I have two standard stress dreams - one is where I am trying to run and but my legs are going in slow motion. The other is being drunk when I’m working with a client. You probably have a stress dream that you can identify as your standard one. 

Anything where you feel out of control or stressed is usually a stress dream. 


Similar to this, the final way you can often identify stress in your sleep is through an increase in parasomnias - things like sleep walking, night terrors, sleep paralysis or talking in your sleep often have some links to stress and will become worse with stress. What you say or do during your sleep might have nothing to do with your stress but doing more of it indicates heightened stress


As I said, if these effects are short lived, for a night or two, they tend not to pose much of a problem. I am a big believer in being educated in knowing how to protect your sleep as this is what stops it escalating into a bigger problem - if you would like to know more about this, I suggest looking at the Sleep Optimiser Programme - this is what I designed to give you the toolkit of knowledge and strategies on how to optimise and protect your sleep.  

So the question I get asked a lot - If your sleep is affected by stress, do you need to get rid of the stress before your sleep can get better? No absolutely not. Which is good because for a lot of people they can’t get rid of the stress, depending on what it is! We will talk in one of the upcoming episodes about the types of stress that can affect sleep, but certainly not all of them can just be switched off. 

Too many people think that they will deal with the sleep once something happens that they expect will change the stress - but all this does is leaves you with lots more nights of inadequate or substandard sleep and increases the risks of this sleep stuff becoming more of a problem of it’s own

In actual fact, if your sleep is affected by stress on a regular basis, or if it’s happening for stretches of time rather than just the odd night here and there, it is far better to address this. Usually this requires a combination of learning simple sleep skills and learning how to ‘switch off’ from the day and limit the impact of the stress. This is literally what I teach in the Sleep Optimiser Programme so have a look at that if you are interested - the link is in the show notes. 

Sometimes the stress can be hidden - so it can be a good idea to keep a sleep diary for a few weeks and see if stress is leaving clues in your sleep - look for all the things I have spoken about in this episode. 


So, in summary, the main clues that stress is affecting your sleep are:

  • Delayed sleep onset
  • More fragmented sleep
  • Surface sleep
  • Stress dreams
  • Increase in parasomnias - sleep walking, sleep talking, nightmares, sleep paralysis 

It can take a trained eye to tell these apart from other forms of sleep problem but this gives you a good starting point to consider whether stress is impacting your sleep. 

Coming up, in the next few episodes I will be talking about the different types of stress that can be impacting your sleep, the stress-sleep cycle and a simple way of considering how you might address your stress. 

So if stress is an important topic for you, stay tuned. 

I hope this episode has been useful for you to understand how stress affects sleep and what you can look out for to know if it’s impacting you.