By: Cathy Cassata

Despite warmer weather and summer vacations, stress levels only seem to be rising. The pandemic, inflation, item shortages, and global geopolitical uncertainty have put people on high alert, according to a recent survey on sources of stress by the American Psychological Association (APA) and The Harris Poll.

Concerns about these stressors and others make their way into how you sleep. In fact, an APA survey found that 43 percent of people reported that stress caused them to lie awake at night.

“The number one thing that causes insomnia is stress, so they’re inexplicably connected. If you’re stressed and lying down, unless you’re using something to physically knock yourself out like a pharmaceutical, alcohol, cannabis, stress will override almost anything when it comes to sleep,” says psychologist Michael J. Breus, PhD, better known as “The Sleep Doctor.”

Even if a substance is used to assist with sleep, he adds that in times of extreme stress, such as learning you have a terminal disease, death of a loved one, or losing a job, your brain can override a substance. “Stress is stronger than most pharmaceuticals, which is why we’ve got to teach people how to deal with their stress through techniques such as exercise or meditation and breathwork,” says Breus.

Tip: Oura’s Explore Tab contains dozens of meditations and breathwork exercises to help you unwind for sleep, all with Wellness Session Biofeedback, as well as sleep stories and meditations to help you fall asleep

While Breus says the act of sleeping isn’t complicated, he believes people complicate sleep. 

“Very few people have a broken sleep switch in their head, but what they do have is anxiety, FOMO [fear of missing out], poor decision making, or similar challenges. Sleep in itself is no more complicated than breathing,” he said.

The Mind Body Connection

Understanding sleep can help make sense of why it’s more difficult for some people.

“When someone is sleep deprived, something happens metabolically that can cause a decrease in the quality of their sleep,” said Breus.

The body has an autonomic nervous system, which is broken out into two subsystems: 

  • Parasympathetic, which controls the body’s ability to rest
  • Sympathetic, which controls the body’s fight or flight response

“When you’re awake longer than your body wants to be, your body will produce cortisol, which is the hormone that is [released] in response to our sympathetic nervous system,” explains Breus.

At night, cortisol levels typically should fall, as melatonin, a hormone released at night to aid with sleep, rises. 

“Melatonin has a tendency to kick off as the sun is going down while cortisol has a tendency to go down. The problem comes when we’re sleep deprived or stressed out,” says Breus.

When cortisol continues to flood the brain at night, your body stays in fight or flight mode, making it difficult to get into a deeper stage of sleep. Think of it this way: When you’re stressed, you’re sleep deprived, which increases cortisol, and in turn, lowers your sleep quality.

The Role of REM Sleep

REM [rapid eye movement] occurs about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. During this cycle of sleep, your heart rate and breathing is quick and you may have deep dreams because your brain is active.

“Remember, our body is reacting to external stress during our conscious state while it’s unconscious. REM sleep is where we do most of our emotional processing,” says Breus. 

For instance, if you’re very stressed, you might get more REM sleep to process your emotions. While this is a good thing, Breus says behaviors during the day might interfere with how much REM sleep you get.

“Let’s say you’re drinking alcohol that night or caffeine that day. These actually reduce the amount of REM sleep, and therefore you can’t work through the problem because you don’t have enough REM sleep. You wake up the next day and the problem can still be there,” he says.

Lifestyle choices and behaviors you engage in during the day can assist with REM sleep.

Tips for Getting Good Sleep

To work toward getting better sleep during stressful times, Breus suggests the following:

  • Cut off caffeine by 2:00 pm because eight hours later is approximately 10:00 when most people tend to go to sleep. If you can stop earlier in the day, even better. 
  • Limit alcoholic drinks to two drinks and stop drinking them three hours before bed.  Also, drink two glasses of water per hour while drinking alcohol. “It takes the average human body about one hour to digest one alcoholic beverage, so it’s all about how much and how close to bedtime you drink,” says Breus. Also, alcohol is a diuretic, so replacing alcohol with water keeps you from getting dehydrated, which can effect sleep.
  • Avoid exercising within 4 hours of bedtime because otherwise it will cause your core body temperature to be high. “Remember we want our core body temperature low because we sleep better in the cool,” says Breus.
  • Wake up at the same time every day, including the weekends, based on your chronotype. Your chronotype is the time of day your body is naturally inclined to sleep. 
  • After you wake up, do these three things right away: 1. Take 15 deep breaths (helps kick in the respiratory system). 2. Drink 15 ounces of water (you lose almost a liter of water every night from humidity in your breath). 3. Get 15 minutes of direct sunlight (when sunlight hits a cell in your eye called melanopsin, it turns off the melatonin faucet in your brain and helps relieve brain fog).
  • Find ways to reduce stress, such as meditation, exercise, breathwork, or other self-care practices that work for you.