S2:E17 | What is the sleep - stress cycle?

podcast season 2 stress wind down
What is the sleep - stress cycle?

Have you heard of the sleep - stress cycle? It is normal and expected for sleep to be impacted by stress here and there but when you get stuck in a sleep - stress cycle it can cause big problems for your every day life and functioning, and even lead to much bigger problems.

Let’s talk about this in today’s episode.



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

In this season of the podcast we are talking about stress and how stress affects sleep to mark Stress Awareness Month throughout April. 

If you haven’t listened to the last episode yet, go and do that now. In the last episode I talked about how stress affects sleep specifically and what signs you might notice in your sleep (or lack of it) that would be caused by stress.


Stress is one of the biggest factors that causes disruption in our sleep so it is really important to understand this and learn to protect sleep from the impacts of stress

In today’s episode we are talking about the stress - sleep cycle. We will talk about what this is, how we can end up stuck in it and what we need to do to change it. 


Loads of us go in and out of it and many people spend most of their time there, but yet we often don’t even recognise it. So, this episode is about starting to shine a light of awareness on the stress - sleep cycle because we can’t change what we are not even aware of

It is completely normal for elevated stress levels to cause problems with sleep because stress hormones keep our bodies alert and awake. Nothing has gone wrong here and it is perfectly normal and expected that this will happen occasionally - yes it even happens to me. However, ideally we would only ever want this to be for a day or two before returning to normal. So, you dip into that cycle and then are able to correct it or the stress passes. As long as the effect of stress on your sleep is just for a night or two here and there, it’s no big deal. It can be a bit annoying but doesn’t have a detrimental impact on your overall sleep or life in general. 


So, what is the sleep - stress cycle? This is the frustrating experience when stress is affecting your sleep, so you don’t get enough sleep or enough good quality sleep. Then sleep deprivation naturally activates the stress response. I sometimes think of this like the engine has to rev a little harder to get the same results - your mind and body have to use the stress response to get the required output, basically to function at the same level as everyone else or as your normal rather than this coming easily and naturally as it does when there is enough sleep in the tank. Then because everything about our being relies on sleep, when you are sleep deprived, everything just becomes that little bit harder - it’s harder to concentrate, your resilience might be lower, you might be more reactive or more emotional, your memory isn’t as sharp - which makes your day harder, which further raises your stress levels and makes it more difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Which will then lead you to being more sleep deprived the next day because now you have two nights of bad sleep instead of just one and increases your stress levels …  and on and on this cycle can go. 


So, stress and sleep have a very reciprocal relationship and they can feed each other positively or negatively. In my Sleep Optimiser Programme I call this the mirror effect - your night reflects your day and your day reflects your night. The level of your stress really matters for your sleep


I think most of us can say we have been there and had experiences where stress has affected our sleep, either in quantity, quality or both. 

However, this sleep - stress cycle can go on for weeks or even months at a time.  At it’s worst, this can go on for years and years and this is one of the types of insomnia I treat because once you are deeply entrenched in this cycle, it can be very challenging / impossible to get out of on your own. 


So, how does this reciprocal relationship between stress and sleep become so problematic and leave people stuck in the cycle?

Well, it usually starts with a period of elevated stress (and this can be stress of varying forms - see the next episode for more on this) which then causes problems with sleep - so far so normal. However, what can easily happen is that the bad night’s sleep then begins to affect you. Adequate sleep is critical to your physical and mental wellbeing and when you are not getting it, it causes problems and then how you respond becomes really important.  


There are four main ways that I see people running into problems with the stress - sleep cycle which can then allow it to escalate into a bigger issue rather than passing after a night or two as normal.  

So, let me explain the four ways the impact of stress on sleep can cause bigger problems


1 If the stress doesn’t or can’t pass on it’s own after a few days

Let’s say you are stressed and worried about a meeting at work and don’t sleep well because of it. You are likely to have a harder day but then likely to feel some relief at the end of it, once it is all done. If you are working to a deadline, same thing. The stress passes and most of the time we will probably expect this so we don’t get too in our heads about it. 

However, there are many different types of stress and stressors that have the potential to impact sleep (I will talk in more detail about these in next weeks episode) and not all of these can pass and certainly not quickly. Often then people will make the mistake of thinking that they are trapped in the cycle of bad sleep until such a day comes that the stress will improve - this is really not a good strategy as the sleep deprivation, however normal it may begin to feel is having a detrimental impact all of the time. So, if the stress doesn’t or can’t pass and no other changes are made, it will keep you stuck in the stress - sleep cycle.  


2→ When you start to feel anxious about sleep or overthink it 

However normal it is for your sleep to be reacting to your stress levels, our lovely human mind often likes to get involved and panic and create a whole host of incredibly unhelpful thoughts which ultimately actually feed the stress response and make the whole issue worse. We start to think things like ‘will I be able to sleep tonight’ or ‘what if I can’t sleep’ or ‘what if I don’t sleep at all’. You might start to overthink sleep and get stressed about the process of getting to sleep. You might start to have thoughts like ‘if I lie on this side I will be able to sleep’ or ‘if I do or don’t do x,y,z thing I will have more chance of sleeping’. 

Left unchecked, the anxiety and overthinking of sleep can quickly become an anxiety insomnia issue where the anxiety has taken a life of it’s own and is causing the sleep problems. 

Remember, when stress is affecting sleep nothing has gone wrong - it’s important to try to keep a strong perspective on this and there are lot’s of techniques that can be used to help with this when you take the time to be educated on sleep. 


3→ When we start taking sleep medications or seeing sleep as a problem

Many people will decide to speak to a GP or go to the pharmacy to try to get something to help them sleep. Whilst this can feel like a very logical thing to do, it can create far more problems than it solves. A GP can usually only offer sleeping tablets or anti depressants, neither of which are usually necessary because when in the stress - sleep cycle, this is no actual problem with sleep - your sleep is simply reacting to your stress. Nothing has gone wrong. However, a lot can go wrong when we start medicating this. The medications issue is one for another day and another podcast as it comes with a whole heap of warnings and caveats but for our purposes today, what we don’t want is to start using medications when you are in the stress - sleep cycle. 


4→ When we don’t step in to correct the situation and break the cycle

Since not all stress can or will pass within a couple of days, and some stress is related to long term situations, it is really important to step in and change something so that you can break the sleep - stress cycle and begin to de escalate the situation and return things to a more sustainable, normal level where you can be healthy and well rested whilst living alongside the stress. If you don’t change anything or step into the cycle in any way then nothing will change and if anything, things are likely to get worse. In some cases, over time, this can become habit insomnia which is a much bigger issue to resolve. 


From my perspective, working with people with sleep challenges all of the time, if more people were equipped to know what to do when they find themselves in the stress - sleep cycle, we would have many fewer insomnia problems and many fewer people addicted to or feeling dependant on sleeping tablets. Sleep problems are very preventable when we have the right knowledge and skill to tackle sleep challenges brought about by stress.  


So, if you think you could be in the stress - sleep cycle at the moment, or you know your sleep is frequently disrupted by sleep, what can you do about it? How do you break out of this frustrating loop?

Are you in the Sleep Optimiser Programme? If not, you should be - this walks you through, step by step all of the sleep skills you need to optimise your sleep through all of life’s ups and downs - it is everything that I wish everyone knew about sleep. And we do a Q&A session every month so you can get any questions you have about your sleep answered by me. You can get started straight away, just go to sleepseekers.academy or find the link in the show notes. 


Then the advice I would give to everyone when going through a period of stress and noticing that your sleep is affected:

1→ Implement really good wind down routines.

If you have a lot of stress, your wind down time becomes even more imperative as it is the opportunity to create positive runway into sleep and bring down the stress levels and move closer to the correct body chemistry for a good night’s sleep. I have loads of resources to help you with this. There is a Wind Down Course included as part of the Sleep Optimiser Programme but if you want to do just the wind down modules they are taken out to be a stand alone course that you can do. I also have the Wind Down Journal that helps you to implement the science backed wind down strategies on a daily basis. And you will find lots of podcast episodes dedicated to wind down time. Times of stress are when you should be strengthening your wind down time so if you don’t already have those resources, they are your first port of call. I will put all of the links in the show notes. 


2→ You need to learn to punctuate your stress during the day so that you are not just relying on your wind down time to bring your stress levels down ready for sleep.

Learning strategies to bring down your stress levels throughout the day is where you can start to take some control over your situation and help your sleep at the same time. Remember the mirror effect - what happens in the day is really important to your sleep. We cover lots of this in the Sleep Optimiser Programme and I also have the Your Stress Matters Programme which is full of strategies on how to punctuate your stress. If you are serious about learning to manage your stress better, this is for you. 


3→ When you are in the stress - sleep cycle, even if only for a short period of time, you need to establish and maintain really good boundaries.

When you go to bed at night, your brain needs to know that it is safe to stop and relax. You need to create the space that allows this to happen. It’s no good to be responding to emails right up until bedtime for example because your mind is going to find it really hard to switch off from this. Boundaries should apply to all sorts of things to protect your sleep and night time from the stress and your day time activities. It relates to your thoughts and the busyness of your mind just as much as it does to screen time and technology. Again, there is lots of detail on this in the Sleep Optimiser Programme and the wind down journal helps you to implement this every single day. But have a think about your boundaries and how and where you would benefit from implement or improving your boundaries to help you to switch off for a better nights sleep. 


So I think I will stop there. There is so much I could say, this is a really big topic and one that I wish more people knew much more about. 

I hope that helps you to understand the stress - sleep cycle much more - what it is, what’s normal, where it becomes more problematic and some of the key things you should be doing if you find yourself affected. 


Please visit sleepseekers.academy for more information on all of the resources available for learning more and going deeper.