How to Sleep When Stressed: Tips to Calm Your Mind

Ana Marie Schick Jan 19, 2023

Feeling stressed

We can all agree that sleep doesn’t always come naturally, and whatever happens while we’re awake often slips into our minds when we finally lie down at night.

You’ve undoubtedly felt physically exhausted and ready to fall into dreamland, but you suddenly find yourself replaying details from the day, fretting about a conversation you had, or carefully planning what you’re going to present in the meeting tomorrow.

Or perhaps you manage to sleep initially, only to be snapped awake, bolt upright, your heart pounding as your brain begins to list your anxieties.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.

Sleep and Stress Study

A National Sleep Foundation survey found that 43% of individuals aged 13-64 reported experiencing difficulty falling asleep due to stress at least once in the past month. [1]

Calming Affect of a Weighted Blanket

Weighted blanket hugs your body with a calming feeling to reduce stress & anxiety. The natural way to get a better, calmer night’s sleep.

Elsewhere, reports show that people in the United States feel increasingly stressed [2] in the current climate of inflation and political unrest.

The difficulty is the less sleep we get, the less energy we have to deal with worries, and the more stressed we’re likely to be – it’s a vicious cycle.

How, then, can we break the spiral and ensure that we get the rest we really need? Here’s our short, effective guide on how to sleep when stressed.

What Are the Different Types of Stress?

Sometimes used as an umbrella term for any kind of discomfort you feel, stress is actually divided into three primary types: acute, episodic, and chronic. Knowing which applies to you is key to helping alleviate stress.

Acute Stress

Acute stress acts as your body’s natural reaction to a new and alarming occurrence; for example if you cross the street and narrowly escape a car hitting you. Alternatively, you can feel acute stress when you ride a rollercoaster – it can be a mixture of adrenaline, fear, and excitement.

Everyone experiences acute stress at some point in their lives. The defining characteristic of acute stress is that your body returns to a calm state relatively quickly after the event.

Episodic Acute Stress

Episodic acute stress occurs when you repeatedly have acute stress; for instance, if you suspect that a distressing event is going to happen. People with anxiety and people who work in high-pressure environments tend to experience episodic acute stress.

If left untreated, episodic acute stress can affect your mental and physical well-being.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress, or high-level stress, lasts for an ongoing period of time. It triggers symptoms like headaches, a sore stomach, high blood pressure, and a weak immune system. Chronic stress is also related to depression and cardiovascular disease.

Like any stress, chronic stress can result from living through a traumatic event, having a chronic illness, going through a relationship breakdown, and dealing with many other difficult life changes.

Stress and sleep

Effects of Stress on Sleep

Stress prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep and breaks your sleep once you doze off. Stress stimulates our bodies’ stress response system, releasing more of the hormone cortisol, which disrupts sleep.

Cortisol prepares us in “fight or flight” scenarios, so it has a powerful effect on the body and mind. It affects mood, digestion and metabolism, as well as the immune system. Studies show [3] that sleep deprivation causes your body to secrete more cortisol during the day, which, according to scientists, could be to compensate for tiredness with greater alertness.

Stress can, therefore, lead to insomnia, a sleep disorder where people experience problems going to sleep, staying asleep, or getting quality sleep. The majority of people have experienced short-term insomnia at some point in their lives, lasting for a few days or weeks. Long-term insomnia, on the other hand, continues for months or more and is not as common.

Notably, research reveals [4] that stress is one of the main predictors of insomnia.

Ways to Fight Stress

Exercise Regularly

Physical activity can release feelings of stress, as well as improve mood and lower sleep disturbances. [5] Exercise can also improve symptoms of anxiety and depression.

If you’re not physically active, start with a gentle routine. This may include walking, biking, and yoga. Aim to do at least 30 minutes of exercise per day and avoid sitting for long periods of time. When you can, stand while you work and take regular breaks to move.

Eat Well

What you put into your body has a huge effect on how you feel. People who eat a lot of processed foods and sugary foods are more likely to experience higher levels of stress. [6] Similarly, people with chronic stress may overeat, which can perpetuate these feelings further.

Minimizing how much processed and high-sugar food you eat can improve your resilience to stress. Focus on eating a balanced diet that includes adequate protein, complex carbs, healthy fats and vegetables. Remember to stop eating at least three hours before bed, as your body needs time to digest.

Read More: Foods & Drinks That Can Help You Sleep Better

Cut Your Screen Time

It’s inevitable in today’s world that you’ll spend hours in front of a screen each day. While you probably can’t cut your screen time altogether, you must manage it to ensure a healthy night’s sleep. Excessive phone use is associated [7] with higher levels of stress, particularly as the blue light from devices suppresses the secretion of melatonin – the hormone that helps us nod off to sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation [8] recommends not using your phone at least 30 minutes before you go to bed.

Outside of work, specialists also [9] suggest spending no more than two hours in front of a screen.

Be Mindful About Caffeine

While it’s tempting to reach for a coffee, tea, or energy drink throughout the day, the caffeine in these beverages stimulates your central nervous system, which can exacerbate stress and harm your sleep. Everyone has different amounts of caffeine that they can tolerate, but in general, aim to keep your caffeine intake under 400 mg per day (between four to five cups). [10]

That said, if you notice that caffeine makes you feel anxious or irritable, lower your consumption or consider cutting it completely. Also, remember that caffeine takes a long time to break down and be eliminated from the body, so have your last caffeinated drink a minimum of eight hours before bedtime.

Practice Self Care

It can be easy to be hard on yourself when you’re stressed and unable to sleep, yet this is actually the prime moment to enact some self-care. In fact, engaging in self-care can [11] lower your levels of stress and can improve your quality of life, and it doesn’t have to be an overly complicated act.

Other Lifestyle Changes

  • Support from friends and family
  • Avoid working late
  • Reduce alcohol and caffeine intake

Final Thoughts

Self-care is about maintaining your happiness and well-being and can include reading a book, spending time with friends and family, doing a hobby or simply drawing a bath. No matter how large or small, self-care should be a daily process and something that is from you, for you.

Sleep is essential, and even in moments of stress, be assured that a good night’s rest is within your reach. For more pathways to the land of zzz’s, look at our personalized sleep solutions.

Citation/Resources

[1] American Psychological Association. (2013, January 1). Stress and sleep. View Resource

[2] American Psychological Association. (2022, October 19). More than a quarter of U. S. Adults say they’re so stressed they can’t function [Press release]. View Resource

[3] Nicolaides, N. C., Vgontzas, A. N., Kritikou, I., & Chrousos, G. (2020). HPA Axis and Sleep. In K. R. Feingold (Eds.) et. al., Endotext. MDText.com, Inc.

[4] Han, K. S., Kim, L., & Shim, I. (2012). Stress and sleep disorder. Experimental neurobiology, 21(4), 141–150. View Study

[5] Ellingson, L. D., Meyer, J. D., Shook, R. P., Dixon, P. M., Hand, G. A., Wirth, M. D., Paluch, A. E., Burgess, S., Hebert, J. R., & Blair, S. N. (2018). Changes in sedentary time are associated with changes in mental well-being over 1? year in young adults. Preventive medicine reports, 11, 274–281. View Study

[6] Schweren, L., Larsson, H., Vinke, P. C., Li, L., Kvalvik, L. G., Arias-Vasquez, A., Haavik, J., & Hartman, C. A. (2021). Diet quality, stress, and common mental health problems: A cohort study of 121,008 adults. Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland), 40(3), 901–906. View Study

[7] Vahedi, Z., & Saiphoo, A. (2018). The association between smartphone use, stress, and anxiety: A meta-analytic review. Stress and health: journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 34(3), 347–358. View Study

[8] Suni, E. (2022, March 11). How To Determine Poor Sleep Quality. Sleep Foundation. View Resource

[9] Reduce Screen Time, NHLBI, NIH. (2013, February 13). View Resource

[10] Evans J, Richards JR, Battisti AS. Caffeine. [Updated 2022 May 1]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. View Resource

[11] Ayala, E. E., Winseman, J. S., Johnsen, R. D., & Mason, H. (2018). U.S. medical students who engage in self-care report less stress and higher quality of life. BMC medical education, 18(1), 189. View Study

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