Working Smarter

Why a Sleep Problem Is Often a Stress Problem

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Cats can nod off upside down with their paws in the air. Dogs can be out cold in five seconds. The realm of sleep is a little more complicated for humans. There are those racing thoughts to contend with, the hyper state that won’t shut down when you want it to. Trying to do what for any pet is a snap costs Americans $41 billion a year in sleep aids. 

It’s kind of disconcerting that Rover and Fluffy can get the job done and we can’t, but there is hope for better nights ahead and spending a lot less money on sleep meds. The culprit in a bad night’s sleep for many is something we can fix, if we know how: stress. We can shut off the stress alarm just as we can the alarm clock in the morning. When we do, the stress response stops in four minutes.

BAD BRAIN ARCHITECTURE BEHIND INSOMNIA

Stress is part of our built-in survival equipment. It’s an alarm set off in the oldest part of the brain, the limbic system, which triggers a host of physiological reactions to allow the body to find the strength and speed to fight or run from danger. While it has kept us alive through the millennia, it’s a mechanism that was built for another time and place—African savannas 100,000 years ago—not for the social stressors of the modern world.

The stress response and its headquarters, the amygdala, don’t know how to compute the 21st century. They are out of their depth, out of whack with the nature of the threat they are reacting to, and so are we when they are allowed to run us. An impending deadline, 200 emails, or a conflict with a friend or family member may create tension, but they are not threats to life and limb. They are false alarms that come from bad brain architecture.

When something overloads our ability to cope with it, the modern brain is instantly hijacked by the ancient brain, as if the higher brain and the cerebral cortex that evolved on top of the limbic system didn’t exist.

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This can happen before you even consciously feel you can’t handle someone or something. It’s very quick on the draw, and if we’re not just as quick to shut down the false alarm, we can fall prey to the host of physical maladies and conditions stress can set off. Because stress suppresses the immune, digestion, and tissue repair systems, it can lead to cardiovascular problems, irritable bowel, stroke, back pain, chronic fatigue, and, yes, insomnia, among many others.

INCREASE STRESS, DECREASE SLEEP

Research shows that stress lessens the length of sleep—not just how many hours we sleep, but how often we awaken during sleep. A whopping 78% of participants in one study (Bastiem, Vallieres, Morin 2004) reported a link between stress and insomnia.

At the most basic level, stress is at odds with the concept of sleep, which is the act of closing up shop for the day and shutting down. The stress response is an activation agent. It drives arousal. It's a stimulant. It doesn’t want to close down for the night, because you are going to die, or at least that is the message being sent by outmoded brain neurons.

One of the hormones that the stress response floods your body with to help you survive a threat is cortisol. It's not a sleep aid. Sleep starts when cortisol is at its lowest point, and you are ready to wake up when it is at its highest level. Too much cortisol interferes with sleep regulators such as the Hypothalamo-Pituitary Adrenal axis (HPA) (Kato, Montplaisir, Lavigne, 2004), activates the autonomic nervous system, and increases attention and alertness.

Acute and chronic stress have been found in studies of rats to decrease slow wave "delta" sleep, the deepest sleep, when the brain is less responsive to external stimuli, as well as REM, critical to our circadian sleep/wakefulness rhythm (Meerlo, Pragt, Daan).

When stress shuts down the immune system, that also impacts sleep. The immune system is critical to the work of cytokines, which signal immune system molecules such as interleukin-1 beta, tumor necrosis factor, and interferon, which regulate sleep. Without these elements, sleep is interrupted (Han, Kim, Shim, 2012).

THE OVER-ALERTNESS OBSTACLE

Stress-related insomnia itself aggravates these and many other physiological barriers to sleep in a vicious cycle that doubles down on the strimulant effect of stress. Insomnia causes many of the same problems that the stress that created it does—increased cortisol, heart rate, body temperature (which can also cause wakefulness), and oxygen consumption. If you have insomnia, you are in a higher state of alertness, even though you are fatigued from lack of quality shuteye. Insomnia has been dubbed an “over-alertness obstacle” to sleep.

Let’s take a cue from Fido and Ginger, and drop the stress. Just get rid of it. Animals don’t hang on to it. After a trespassing dog pads a few yards past your house, it's like the event never happened for your rabidly barking dog, now docile and ready for a snooze. We can do the same, by switching off the stress when it erupts. That means dropping the rumination and awfulizing that perpetuate stressful thoughts, and challenging the false beliefs behind negative events that keep our brain in the stress vise grip.

Stress is a broken car alarm that shuts off only when we grab the keys and switch it off—by convincing our brain that the danger is not real, just like thoughts aren't real. Only experience is. You are not going to die. You are going to handle it, whatever it is. You always do. 

The process starts by understanding the mechanisms of the stress response, that the first thoughts that go off when negative things happen are false beliefs, all-or-nothing, black-and-white distortions and exaggerations. We have to catch ourselves when stress sets the worries and dreads off and submit them to a vetting process—disputing, challenging,  contesting. False beliefs and fear projections can't hold up to scrutiny when we dig in and unmask them.

Proven processes I teach in my stress management trainings and coaching help you defang triggers that set off stress and bring back your 21st century brain to resume command of the ship. You are no longer back in your hunter-gatherer mind, but present, and well-rested, in the 21st century.

If you are having trouble sleeping, have stress in your life, and would like to get back to restful nights again, click here or give us call at Optimal Performance Strategies at 310-570-6987. We turn off the stress. 

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Tags: life balance, stress response, managing stress, insomnia, burnout and sleep, stress and sleep

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