You probably realize that stress can take a toll on the quality of your sleep—but you may not know exactly how or why. Basically, it’s because feeling stressed out increases your physiological and psychological arousal in ways that are incompatible with the state your body and mind need to enter relaxed, restorative sleep.
So if you can’t relax after a difficult day once you’ve slipped under the covers, good quality sleep is bound to be elusive. You’re likely to have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping soundly. The time you spend in the deep, restorative sleep (stages 3 and 4) may be reduced, as well. Adding insult to frustration, if you sleep poorly at night, there’s a good chance that you’ll be more reactive to stress the next day.
So how can you tell whether you’re too stressed to sleep soundly? Your body and mind are likely to give you some clues. Here are three.
You can’t turn off your busy mind.
Instead, you keep going over and over your stresses, worries, and frustrations, contemplating them from various angles. It’s almost like they’re playing on a continuous loop that you can’t shut off, which interferes with your ability to smoothly slip into slumber.
Your muscles are seriously tense.
If you’re experiencing muscle tension and pain, or stress-related aches such as neck and shoulder pain or headaches, it can be difficult for you to fall asleep or stay asleep. Complicating matters, poor sleep can set the stage for you to experience even more tension headaches and increased pain sensitivity the next day.
Your heart is racing.
A revved up or variable heart rate is a common stress symptom, and it’s associated with increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), greater physical tension, and increased autonomic arousal—effects that are not conducive to falling asleep or sleeping well. On the contrary, it’s a set-up for sleep disturbances.
Fortunately, if you spend some time doing relaxation exercises such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing before turning in for the night, you can help your body and mind dial down the stress. It’s also wise to develop a relaxing pre-sleep ritual—which might include, for example, taking a warm bath or having a soothing cup of caffeine-free tea—that you use consistently to set yourself up for a good night’s slumber, night after night.