The Complex Relationship Between Sleep and Stress

Category: Healthy Living


Posted on March 16, 2021

Vanessa is a health writer and blogging expert. Her specialities are medicine, health and wellness. She is proud to call Vancouver, BC her home where she enjoys the ocean and mountains with her dog Mr. ChowChow.

sleep and stress

The relationship between sleep and stress may not be an obvious one at first. But the impact of stress on sleep is measurable and worrisome.

If you've ever doubted the importance of sleep or the impact stress has on your body and mind, then this article may help change your mind. 

What Is Stress?

Stress can be challenging to define. Generally, it's an unpleasant emotion resulting in a sensation of tension or looming trouble. Feelings of stress are triggered by events, people, sounds, or items called stressors.

Anything can become a stressor. Most stressors are linked to traumatic experiences that occurred long ago. For example, police sirens may be a stressor for a retired police officer who associates the sound with violence, death, and despair.

When you encounter a stressor, your body initiates a series of reactions called the human stress response. This unique reaction is also called the "fight-or-flight" response. 

Fight or Flight

The human stress response was once crucial to the survival of our species. Occasionally, it still is. The response consists of a complex series of biological reactions and changes, some of which can be quite beneficial.

When our ancient ancestors encountered a perilous threat (such as a hungry predator), their bodies released a rush of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine to help them either face a threat (fight) or run away from it (flight). 

Contemporary stressors trigger the same reaction in modern humans. Adrenaline causes the heart to race, palms to sweat, and breath to quicken. Cortisol helps regulate blood sugar levels to produce a burst of helpful energy.

Finally, norepinephrine acts to help a person focus and move. It can aid in awareness while also drawing blood away from the skin and toward the muscles, ensuring either a speedy escape or impactful fight. 

After this fight-or-flight response is triggered, it can take several days for the body to fully rid itself of the above hormones and return to a normal peaceful state. In the past, this process helped early humans survive insurmountable odds and threats.

Is Stress Beneficial?

If modern humans didn't experience the stress response, we might not continue to survive as successfully as we have up until this point. Our stress response is still useful in avoiding life-ending accidents or threats, and stressors can be helpful.

Still, many contemporary stressors aren't as straightforward as hungry predators or cataclysmic natural disasters. Annoying co-workers, frustrating bouts of commuter traffic, insolent children, and emotionally distant partners are modern-day stressors.

Unfortunately, these stress sources aren't things that you can run away from or destroy with your fists. They're complex, and they necessitate complex solutions.

Consequently, many of today's common stressors can generate an unhealthy amount of stress. When an individual's fight-or-flight response is consistently triggered every day, their sleep and overall health can begin to suffer in dramatic ways.

How Does Stress Affect the Body?

Stress can affect the body in a multitude of ways. Understanding the effects of stress can be challenging due to the many varied reactions to stressors. Still, we can attempt to gain a better understanding by studying the fight-or-flight hormones.

These three primary hormones, as mentioned above, are:

  • Adrenaline
  • Cortisol
  • Norepinephrine

Each hormone has a specific set of functions and purposes. Additionally, each one can begin to inflict damage to the body after a long period. These positive and negative effects are diverse, and they can be somewhat complicated.

As such, we'll take this moment to examine each hormone in greater detail. This way, we can understand the physical effects of the stress response.


Adrenaline is a hormone that your body releases during the stress response. Though some of the most notable ones include increasing a person's heart rate and expanding the airway passage in the lungs, adrenaline has several functions.

This hormone instructs the body to redirect circulation toward the brain, aiding in improved cognition. It can also cause the pupils to dilate, allowing individuals to see differences in colors and shades more clearly. 

When a person's stress response is triggered continuously, the body can flood with an adrenaline overabundance. This can cause dizziness, confusion, difficulty breathing, headaches, and nausea. 


Cortisol, like adrenaline, is a hormone produced during the fight-or-flight response. Its primary purpose is to regulate an individual's metabolism during a period of high stress, allowing the body to burn energy from multiple sources.

Cortisol also has an active hand in the immune response, lowering inflammation and suppressing some parts of the immune system. This hormone can also lower a person's sex drive and reduce their appetite.

Left unabated, cortisol production and release may lead to weight gain, immune disorders, a lack of libido, and malnutrition. Over a long time, excess cortisol may also contribute to heart disease and an overall decrease in well-being and health.


If you guessed that norepinephrine was a hormone, then you guessed correctly. This hormone works in tandem with adrenaline to increase a person's heart rate and blood pressure. During a life-or-death situation, this function is beneficial.

However, long-term norepinephrine release can result in high blood pressure, anxiety, an abnormal heart rate, vomiting, and confusion. Consequently, this stress-related hormone is just as dangerous as the other two.

In some cases, it may be necessary to counter these powerful hormones with equally powerful medications. If you're concerned about the cost of prescription sleep medications, you may want to investigate online coupons that could lower costs.

Suffering from long-term stress is something that can negatively impact your overall health. This problem can extend beyond your purely physical self and begin to affect your mental health as well. As such, it's crucial to stay aware of stress levels.

How Does Stress Affect the Mind?

The hormones released during the stress response have measurable physical effects, but they can also affect how the mind works. An individual's mental state is often closely tied to their physical well-being, as the brain is a part of the body.

Natural "feel-good" chemicals and hormones that enable us to feel happiness, joy, and a sense of security can go amiss due to an overstimulated stress response. There are only so many receptors in our brains, and they can become overloaded.

Imagine that your brain and nervous system is a massive highway. Each electrical impulse that flows along this highway is a piece of crucial information. Everything we experience is the result of these impulses.

Internal "traffic jams" can be problematic. Because the stress response is an active and vivid experience, it can lessen other bodily functions and sensations. Over a long period, this shift in priorities can lead to several mental health issues.

Anxiety and depression are two of the most common problems stressed-out individuals face. However, insomnia (sleeplessness) is also a prevalent side effect of prolonged stress.

What Is Sleep?

Take a moment to try defining sleep in your own terms. It might be impossible to do, as many of us don't question what sleep is and why we do it. Just as with eating or breathing, sleeping is considered a natural and an unavoidable fact of life.

For this article, we'll consider sleep a necessary biological function that most animals perform regularly. It occurs when an organism ceases most physical activity and enters a brief stasis.

This stasis is often defined by brainwave activity. For example, when we humans fall asleep, our brainwaves change shape and regularity. For the most part, our brains become slightly less active during sleep.

During sleep, the body's overall temperature may decrease slightly as less energy is expended. Digestion and heart rate may slow down, and the body may enter a state of relaxation that borders on stasis. 

Why Do We Sleep?

The average person will spend about 33% of their entire lives sleeping. But why do we need to sleep? The answer to this question isn't set in stone or entirely certain.

We know that sleep is essential to optimal cognitive functioning, including forming, storing, and recalling memories. We also know that those with poor sleeping habits tend to suffer from a wide range of unpleasant conditions.

A consistent lack of sleep may lead to obesity, heart disease, an impaired immune system, depression, and difficulty concentrating. As such, sleep seems to be imperative to proper overall biological functioning. Without it, we'd die.

How Does Stress Affect Sleep?

Now that you're familiar with how stress can influence both the body and mind, you likely have a good idea of how stress affects sleep. After all, a rush of heart-pounding adrenaline isn't the most relaxing bedtime agent.

If you're bringing stress into the bedroom, you may not get much sleep. When stress levels are high, so are hormone levels. This may result in a feeling of restlessness, high energy, and ceaseless worrying. 

When you spend the first hour in bed staring at the ceiling and rehashing the day's events, you're fueling those coal fires of stress. By the second hour, you might feel frustrated enough to get back up and watch another round of Netflix dramas.

By the third hour of your "sleep," you might finally feel angry and upset with yourself for once again staying up way past your bedtime. These feelings could mutate into deep sensations of despair and depression, which finally drag you into bed.

Upon awaking, you may still feel a little bummed, and the lack of solid sleep could make you feel groggy. These factors combined could result in a stressful start to the day. Stress could make sleeping nearly impossible, and it's a vicious cycle.

Preventing Stress-Induced Insomnia

Avoiding stress can be a practically impossible feat. Stressors exist all around us, and the only way to prevent stress from taking over your life is to change the way you perceive and handle stress.

Changing your relationship with stress isn't a simple process. You'll need to commit to it and be willing to practice stress-relieving activities every day.

If you're unwilling to put in the effort to regain some stress-free peace of mind, the following solutions may not work for you. Many of us are living stressed-out lives full of repetitious stressors.

If you're not able to identify these stressors, you might not be able to change your relationship with them. Fortunately, lifestyle changes aren't the only potential options in terms of preventing stress-induced sleeplessness.

Some of the most popular solutions to this type of insomnia include:

  • Pre-Bedtime Yoga and Meditation
  • Pre-Bedtime Medication
  • Weekly Therapy or Counseling Sessions
  • Less Caffeine Consumption
  • Daily Journaling

The ideal solution for your stress-induced sleeplessness will vary. If you're already eating nutritious meals, avoiding caffeine in the evenings, and exercising regularly, therapy sessions may help you reduce overall stress levels further.

Certain prescription or over-the-counter medications may also help you ease into sleep more easily. Melatonin is a popular option, though you may also want to order prescription medications online that aid in sleepfulness. 

Meditation may also help you de-stress after work, helping you enjoy higher quality slumber each night. If you're not feeling particularly stressed but still struggling to fall asleep, you may want to take a long, hard look at your mattress

Understanding the Relationship Between Sleep and Stress

Stress is an emotion, and often an unpleasant one. Individuals can experience stress after encountering a stressor, which can be nearly anything. Sleep is a necessary function that nearly all living things must do to survive.

A lack of sleep can be exceptionally harmful, especially over a long-term period. Preventing stress-induced sleeping problems may be as simple as changing your lifestyle habits. Ordering refills for medications may also help you experience relief.

If you enjoyed this article about sleep and stress, then be sure to check out related articles on our blog today!

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