How do sleep and stress affect each other?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated January 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you're stressed about the events in your life, like starting a new job, your sleep schedule may be impacted. Sleep and stress are often linked and can affect mental and physical health. If you're experiencing stress, worry, and anxiety, you may experience symptoms of persistent fatigue, lethargy, and insomnia, despite your attempts to sleep normally.

Sleep hygiene is one way to improve your sleep when your stress levels are elevated but it's also worth considering if there could be underlying health issues causing problems, such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or other conditions that could contribute to feelings of tiredness and lethargy, like asking yourself "why am I sleepy all the time?"

Getty/AnnaStills
Anxiety doesn't need to take over your life - you are not alone

How stress affects sleep

Chronicstress can cause your body to stay on alert, draining reserves of energy along with attention. While this reflex can be valuable in temporarily stressful or dangerous situations, it can be a disservice when it occurs over the long term. People experiencing chronic stress, fear, and anxious feelings may constantly feel on edge, alert for any danger but unsure where it could come from.

At night, stress and anxiety can sometimes worsen, leading to racing thoughts, feelings of hopelessness, or trouble getting enough sleep. However, even if your mind calms at night, the endocrine response that stress produces could impact your sleep cycle.

Stress and insomnia

Some people experiencing symptoms of stress and anxiety find themselves unable to sleep at all, resulting in sleep disorders like insomnia. Insomnia can result in poor performance at work or school, drowsiness, lack of focus, difficulty performing daily activities, and trouble thinking.

If insomnia persists for several days, seek medical help to address your sleep. Sleep deprivation can have serious side effects (like inflammation) that can be distressing for you.

Sleep and stress: A cycle

Feeling stressed and running on less than a full sleep tank may not be ideal. Stress and lack of sleep can exacerbate each other's symptoms, resulting in a stressful cycle that adversely impacts mental health. Stress can prevent you from sleeping. Poor sleep quality can worsen anxiety and make you more stressed than usual.

However, various techniques that fight stress or lack of sleep can be used to solve these problems. Often, a few nights of restful sleep can be enough to break the spiral or get your body back on track. While adequate sleep may not be enough to cure stress and anxiety by itself, it can be a step in the right direction.

Symptoms arising from a lack of rest

If you've ever stayed awake for over 24 hours, you might be familiar with the symptoms of mild sleep deprivation. Symptoms can include low mood, difficulty concentrating, persistent fatigue, or inability to think clearly.

Lack of sleep can also cause physical symptoms, making you nauseous, irritable, or physically sore. Over time, a lack of sleep may increase anxiety and stress, making it a potential compounding factor if you're already struggling with your mental health.

Symptoms of stress

Symptoms of stress often overlap with symptoms of lack of sleep. They can include physical effects such as muscle tension, soreness, changes in appetite/sleep patterns, and physical pain. Mental symptoms can consist of excessive worrying, negative thought patterns, guilt, feeling like you’re losing control, anger, irritability, restlessness, hopelessness, panic, and experiencing a panic attack. 

Symptoms of stress can range from mild to severe. Stress may become especially dangerous the more severe your symptoms are, along with the longer the period in which they occur.

If you think your stress and anxiety are higher than normal, consider seeking a medical professional for a second opinion or looking into cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 

Ways to improve your sleep habits and lower stress

Getty/AnnaStills

Promoting healthy sleep

Stress and lack of sleep can be caused by a variety of factors, both external and internal. While you might not be able to control every aspect that affects your sleep, you can take a few concrete steps and try some coping strategies to promote healthy sleep.

Schedule falling asleep

Some people have rigid biological clocks, a natural response that compel them to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Other people fall into rhythms after years of the routine of going to bed and getting up early for work or school. However, for people experiencing stress and anxiety, a typical sleep schedule can seem out of reach. 

Try scheduling a set bedtime and rising time to combat an out-of-sync sleep cycle. Even if it's hard to make yourself fall asleep, commit to lying down at a specific time in the evening. If you're bored resulting in difficulty sleeping, try reading a book, listening to a soothing podcast, or closing your eyes to relax. In the morning, try to wake up at a consistent time to establish a routine.

The CDC recommends that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Teens need eight to ten hours of sleep, while children may require up to 14 hours, depending on their age group.

Suppose you can't fall asleep within an hour due to insomnia or another concern. In that case, you might benefit from talking to a licensed psychiatrist about sleep medications or supplements to help you fall asleep. There are also potential medications to reduce nightmares.

Set up a bedtime routine

Bedtime routines may not only work for children. A routine before bed can be a soothing, calming way to de-stress and ease anxiety at the end of the day. Bedtime routines can be as unique as the individuals who create them. Some people enjoy developing a skincare ritual before bed that soothes the skin to prevents signs of stress and anxiety from appearing on the face. Other people like to unwind with tea or an interesting book.

Pick a low-key, relaxing activity to ease yourself into a calmer state conducive to sleep. You can also try meditation or curl up in bed relaxing. When you repeat this routine, these physical actions may signal your body that it's time to sleep.

Some individuals also find sleep practices like muscle relaxation techniques beneficial. You can try the following to see if it works for you:

  1. Lay down in a comfortable position.
  2. Pay attention to your body, starting at your toes.
  3. Imagine your toes filling up with sleepy sand or progressively relaxing. Let go of any tension in your muscles you might be holding from your day.
  4. Move up to your ankles, legs, and knees, repeating the muscle relaxation, imagining around ten seconds for each body part.
  5. Repeat the exercise for every body part until you reach the top of your head.

Practice sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene has been found essential for public health and personal wellness. Caring for your body in different ways allows you to feel healthily throughout your day. Like regular bodily hygiene, sleep hygiene aims to keep you happy, healthy, and free of mental struggles.

About an hour before bed, plug in your phone and put it to the side. Try not to look at social media, news sites, or work. If it's too tempting, try charging your phone on the other side of the room.

In addition, use your bed only for the purpose of sleep. Try to do work, homework, or leisure activities in a different location so that your mind associates your bed only with sleep. This practice could help you fall asleep easier because your brain is already primed to prepare itself for the night.

Wear yourself out

Exercise can be a valuable way to treat with anxiety symptoms and the root causes of the lack of sleep. Exercise produces "happy" chemicals in the body that may reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety disorders. In this meta-analysis, high-intensity exercise routines were shown to be an effective treatment option for anxiety for some people.

In addition, exercise can result in a healthy feeling of physical exhaustion that makes it easier to fall asleep at night. However, avoid exercising directly before sleep, as endorphins may keep you awake.

Getty/AnnaStills
Anxiety doesn't need to take over your life - you are not alone

How to treat stress

While getting to the root of the physical causes behind lack of sleep can be a way to practice sleep hygiene and catch up on your sleep, it can also be beneficial to treat the mental health challenges contributing to lack of sleep.

Below are a few ways to tackle your stress.

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes involve actions you take in your personal, professional, and educational life to improve your mental health and help you stay healthy. Exercising for a few minutes a day can effectively deal with stress to help you sleep. In addition, a balanced diet full of nutritious meals and snacks can give your body the fuel it needs to fight off stress. 

In the way you take care of your body, you can also benefit from setting time aside to take care of your mind. Techniques for meditation or mindfulness can allow you to clear your mind of stressful thoughts and promote well-being. Studies have found that mindfulness is one of the most effective strategies for reducing stress and anxiety. 

Caffeine and alcohol can make anxiety worse. However, in some cases, mild to moderate stress relief could include drinking a cup of tea. Tea contains l-theanine, which is known to fight symptoms of stress and anxiety. Teas like chamomile may also reduce symptoms of depression or help you sleep, as they can offer a fatiguing effect. It may also be helpful to avoid alcohol. 

Medication

While lifestyle changes may treat symptoms of stress and anxiety, long-term chronic stress may be due to an underlying concern. If you're struggling with stress, find a doctor who can discuss stress, anxiety, and sleep medications with you to help you short-term as you develop healthier strategies.

Therapy

Many individuals also turn to talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy with a therapist to tackle stress, insomnia, and sleep challenges. Therapists are experts in mental health with the ability to offer unique coping mechanisms and research-backed advice personalized to your experience.

If you struggle to get a regular sleep schedule, you can also try online therapy, which can be done at any time and from your home, as long as you have an internet connection.

Research has found that online therapy is as effective as in-person therapy for treating generalized anxiety disorder. A 2014 study with 100 participants found that when clients completed online modules with a therapist, 46% of them achieved clinically significant improvement. That improvement was compared to in-person primary care treatment, and they found that online therapy was a viable alternative. 

Online therapy can also be more cost-effective for many clients. If you're in a remote or less populated area, you may find it challenging to find a therapist near you or one that meshes with you. A platform like BetterHelp can match you with a therapist who fits what you're looking for after filling out a short questionnaire. 

Takeaway

Sleep and stress are closely linked. If you have difficulty sleeping, it may bring on more stress and anxiety. If you're feeling stressed and anxious, you may have trouble sleeping.

There are strategies you can employ that can help improve your sleep and relieve your stress and anxiety disorder. Adding exercise to your routine can increase the endorphins in your brain, helping you feel more tired at the end of the day. In addition, developing a sleep routine can teach your body to follow a schedule.

If you're struggling with stress, and excessive anxiety, and find your sleep isn't restful, you don't have to go it alone. A therapist can talk with you to help you locate the source of your challenges, developing a strategy that works for you. Consider contacting a provider in your area or online for further guidance.

Ease stress and mental exhaustion
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started