I truly feel like we as a society are the most stressed out we have ever been. We live in a go-go-go world. It’s like we are punished for taking time to slow down and rest. Hustle culture has taken over, and if we have a free moment in the day, we are pressured into thinking it needs to be filled.
We wake up early and rush to work, then work long hours during the day, then we rush home and rush the kids to some sort of practice, come home, try our best to eat a healthy dinner, help the kids with homework, get to bed late and begin again the next day. If you are a homemaker or if you are a homeschool mom, you spend your days teaching your children while taking care of everything that needs to be done inside the home, plus finding time to spend with God and carve out some quiet time for yourself. If you are a business owner, you have responsibilities to your clients, your employees, and to yourself. You’re constantly dreaming and thinking of creative ideas and best practices. It’s possible no matter your situation, your brain never seems to shut off.
Stress can be a double-edge sword when it pertains to sleep. Not getting enough sleep, or not getting quality sleep, can lead to mood swings, irritability, and fatigue, which can then make the physical stress even worse. On the flip side, dealing with daily stress can cause anxiety to creep in at bedtime when things finally get still and quiet and you have time alone with your thoughts. It can delay sleep and cause you to toss and turn throughout the night. The sleep-stress cycle is REAL.
Let’s talk about how stress affects the body. Stress can show up in a number of different ways, but it generally falls into one of three categories: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress.
- Acute Stress is short term and often comes with feelings of dread or panic. Some examples of this type of stress include realizing you missed an important deadline (like you forgot to make the mortgage payment) or the feeling after you slam on your brakes to avoid a car accident. Your heart rate increases and your blood pressure goes up. With acute stress, some people also experience other symptoms such as headaches or stomach pain. These symptoms do typically go away after a short period of time.
- Episodic acute stress is a series of individual moments of stress. People who feel burned down by day-to-day stressful situations (like a high-stress job, a sleep-deprived mom raising children, a caregiver to an elderly parent), may resort to binge eating or emotional eating to find relief. That’s why certain foods are labeled as “comfort foods.” This is a very real problem that more people suffer from than like to admit. This type of stress can also lead to anxiety, depression, heart disease, and relationship issues if not addressed in a healthy way.
- Chronic stress can be brought on by a number of things, typically major events like trauma, abuse, or finances. Oftentimes, people do not like to talk about these things and they will keep their feelings locked inside, which can take a big toll on the mind and mental state, as well as lead to feelings of hopelessness or despair.
More often than not, acute stress has very little effect on the body. We all deal with stress in some form or fashion every single day and learn to adapt. But chronic stress can have a major impact on your health in several ways. Here are a few of the ways chronic stress can take a toll:
- Everyone is familiar with the body’s “fight or flight” response when certain events happen, but this can also cause a domino effect. This response causes your blood pressure and heart rate to spike, which is great for “in the moment” reactions to acute stress. With acute stress, the body will stabilize back to normal. However, with chronic stress, blood pressure and heart rate levels are constantly elevated, which takes a toll on your cardiovascular system. And this puts you at risk for heart attack, stroke, and hypertension.
- Your gut health can be affected by chronic stress as well. You are probably aware of the bacteria found in your gut, but it also has nerves that communicate with the brain to regulate mood and other functions of overall health. Stress can interrupt this communication and show up as symptoms such as bloating and other types of stomach pain and discomfort. This can lead to loss of appetite OR the flip side of overeating. So many times when anxiety is present, the easy thing to do is turn to food and binge on emotionally comforting foods, and obesity begins to creep in. Knowing this, does it surprise you that the super stressed out people in the United States have an obesity rate of over 40%? And as we all know, obesity lends itself to a host of other health issues as well.
- Have you ever noticed your muscles tensing up during stressful situations? When you are chronically stressed, muscle tension is constant, which can cause migraine headaches and upper and lower back pain. Stress can also trigger breathing issues, such as asthma attacks, and when stress is persistent, it can lead to bigger issues like pulmonary disease.
I know it’s been a lot of doom and gloom up to this point, and you’ve probably related to at least one of the signs and symptoms I’ve mentioned thus far….and your head is probably spinning trying to figure out how you are going to de-stress so you don’t risk your health.
There is good news ahead. We can break this vicious sleep-stress cycle.
Here are my top tips for breaking the cycle, once and for all:
- De-stress during the Day. When you’ve had “one of those days,” it can be HARD to go to sleep at night. Your mind is racing, trying to process the events of the day. This is the definition of the sleep-stress cycle, and you’re literally watching it take place in your own life. You have to learn to deal with stressful situations during the day instead of shoving them to the side or trying to put a pin in them until you get home at night. When you have a moment of stress or tension or anxiety, take five minutes to go do something you enjoy – make a cup of coffee, go for a walk…whatever brings you joy. Take a few minutes to calm your mind, reset your intention, and hold the stressful thoughts at bay and away from creeping in at night.
- Brain Dump: sometimes moments of anxiety creep in out of fear or worry like or “did I remember to wash Susie’s uniform?” Things like that that creep in at night while lying in bed when everything has settled down. As uncomfortable as it may be, try and resist the urge to get up and take care of these things if they can wait until morning. I also encourage you to do a “brain dump” or data dump each night before bed to write things down and get them out of your head and onto a piece of paper. Make a to-do list for the next day or week or month (whatever works best for you!) and clear your mind so it’s ready to fully rest.
- Practice Saying No: We spend so much time worrying which diet is the “best” diet to follow or which workouts are best for weight loss or muscle tone, but we don’t give sleep a second thought. We skimp on it and it comes back to sabotage our progress. Your health depends on your making sleep a priority, so just say NO to late nights. Say no to plans that keep you out late on a regular basis. Set boundaries on how late people can expect to reach you. So many people treat sleep like it’s optional and say things like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” or “who needs sleep, anyway?”. Sleep is not a luxury – it’s a necessity.
- Implement a nighttime routine: This is something that I strongly suggest for each and every one of my clients – a night time routine is just as important as developing a solid morning routine. Turn off the TV, put the phone away, and unwind. Set boundaries around your time. It’s ok if one more email or text comes in…chances are, it’s not life altering and it can wait until morning. Your bedroom is a place for rest and sleep. Bright lights and blue lights from TV and other devices can disrupt sleep patterns and disrupt your circadian rhythm, so set your phone to Do Not Disturb and do not pick it up until morning. You can even buy an old-school alarm clock so you aren’t tempted to pick it up and set the alarm (OR to start off your day by mindlessly scrolling on social media when you pick it up to turn the alarm off.) Also, I highly recommend doing a “brain dump” before bed. Write things down and get them out. Clear your mind before you go to bed, that way you are able to get the racing thoughts out of your mind, put your to-do list aside, and focus on getting quality sleep. I am also a huge proponent of keeping a prayer journal. I love journaling my prayers. It’s so wonderful too to have a record of them, and to go back and look at how the prayers were answered and to have the reminder that everything happens in God’s timing. Journaling prayers before bed is a great way to get only the peace that Jesus can give right before you drift off to sleep.
The sleep stress cycle is REAL but implementing these things will show you that it doesn’t have to be real for you in your life.
If you are struggling with the sleep-stress cycle and would like to dive in deeper on managing stress and improving your overall health, I invite you to schedule a discovery call and let’s chat about a plan of action, tangible steps for you to take, and clarity on your next steps moving forward!