S2:E18 | The different types of stress that affect sleep

podcast season 2 stress
The different types of stress that affect sleep

Stress comes in all different shapes and sizes. It is one word we use to describe a whole range of experiences and causes - all of which can be affecting your sleep. In this episode I want to unpick the different types of stress to help you to perhaps better understand your experience and perhaps acknowledge what you are actually dealing with.

So, let's go...



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

In today’s podcast I’m going to exploring the different types of stress that can be having an effect on your sleep. 


Most people know that stress can and does impact sleep but most of the time we think of this as being the quick stressful situations that come up such as the meeting you are worried about or too much to do in too little time. And yes, of course this stress does impact sleep, usually on a short sharp basis for a night or two here and there. 


However, stress comes in many different forms and experiences all of which can be affecting your sleep but often we are not so good at recognising or treating as important. 


From my experience, us humans tend to be really bad at recognising and giving ourselves credit for what we are dealing with and how it is affecting us. There is this idea that other people are coping so we should too or that you just have to buckle up and get on with it. And often this will continue until something breaks - your health, your mental health, your sleep - something will often have to give. 


So, let's look at some of the different types of stress and how these can be impacting you and your sleep. 


Stress can be acute or chronic.

Acute stress is when we have a significant physical and psychological reaction to something fairly specific. This tends to be be what we think of when we think of stress. It is a short, sharp experience of stress. So for example, in response to an argument, a meeting you are worried about, a specific situation you are dealing with, a loved one having an accident or having car trouble which messes up your plans. This is the type of stress that can impact your sleep but can come and go quite quickly as the stress calms down. 


Chronic stress however is when you are dealing with longer term challenges that have an impact on you physically and psychologically but this doesn’t pass after a few days. Chronic stress can persist for weeks, months, years or even a lifetime if it is not tackled. This could be due to constantly feeling pressured and overwhelmed, constantly having to spin too many plates, caring for elderly parents or relatives, being a parent to a child with extra needs, struggling with your mental health or trying to manage a difficult relationship perhaps with a partner or parent. 

There are lots of challenges that come along with chronic stress. 

 It often flies under the radar and people around you don’t realise or acknowledge it because nothing has happened, there is no acute incident or situation to make people notice. 

 High levels of stress become normal and you don’t even recognise them anymore, let alone feel driven to do something about it

 You can have absolutely no idea that you have high levels of stress because this has always been your experience. 

Chronic stress can have really significant impacts on your sleep because it has you stuck in the stress - sleep cycle (I did a whole episode on this last week) where your stress is affecting your sleep, then inadequate sleep creates more stress and more stress makes it harder to sleep well. Also, because living with chronic stress can mean you don’t actually recognise that you are living in the stress response, you are often unlikely to do anything to tackle this or you will think your sleep is just random or you will claim the identity of ‘I’m just not a good sleeper’. 

It is also worth being aware that bad sleep in itself can be a chronic stressor for people with all the different forms of sleep problems. 


 Stress can be external or internal

External stress is when something outside of you or in the situation around you is triggering the stress response. For example, being stuck in traffic, your car breaking down, a change in your routine 


Internal stress is when the stress response is being activated by the way you are thinking or treating yourself. This could be due to thinks like perfectionism, holding yourself to unreasonable expectations, self criticism, overthinking, struggling to assert yourself or having a pessimistic outlook. All of these things, and more besides increase the stress response, often dramatically and leave you struggling to sleep. Again, it is very common with internal stress to not realise that you are struggling with these issues until someone points it out and to not have any idea that your stress levels are high because it is your normal baseline, it is what you are used to. But all of the time, internal stress is affecting you and often this will be affected in your sleep. 

We should also add here that emotional stress is a form of internal stress that can be significantly impacting sleep. Emotional stress is where you are really going through it emotionally - perhaps in response to a break up, a bereavement, relationship difficulties or something happening to a loved one. And this could be present or past - it often depends on wether this has been emotionally resolved, come to terms with or not. You often see emotional stress coming out in dreams or sleep walking for example but emotional stress acts just like any other form of stress on your life and your sleep. 


 Stress can be conscious or subconscious

Conscious stress is when you feel stressed in response to a situation and you are aware of it. For example you know that a particular meeting or work obligation raises your stress levels. 


Subconscious stress is when something is under the radar of your awareness and you don’t realise that it raises your stress levels and contributes to your experience of stress. For example, feeling unassertive when with a friend which leads you to feeling pushed around. Often thoughts are a big source of subconscious stress and until you learn to become aware of your thoughts, they pass under the radar despite affecting you on a regular basis. Often when I do sleep assessments, these are the sorts of things I might pick up on with someone who has never realised they experience high levels of stress because of their thoughts or the way their mind is working. And of course you can’t do anything about what you aren’t aware of so subconscious stress means it is less likely that you will have been intervening and trying to do things differently to lower your stress levels.  


So, stress can be 

  Acute or chronic

  External or internal

  Conscious or subconscious. 

And of course you can be experiencing a combination of these. For example, you might experience chronic internal stress. 


So, in summary the word ‘stress’ encompasses many different experiences and triggers and so is much more complex than it might first seem. This is why it can be such a big driver of sleep problems, far beyond the very normal rubbish night here and there. 

Regardless of the type of stress, there are always strategies and tools that can be but in place to help you to reduce your stress levels, feel better in general and sleep better. Sometimes this is really small adjustments that make the world of difference and put you in a more positive cycle where things get better and better over time. 


I have lots of resources to help you further, including a whole course dedicated to helping you to change your experience of stress and a whole course dedicated to teaching you everything you need to know about how to optimise your sleep and protect it from the challenges of every day life. I will link both for you in the show notes. 


And tune in next week when I will be talking about the four keys to managing stress - a simple framework you can work through to consider any situation and how you can reduce your stress levels and have a different experience.