3 ways stress can disturb your sleep

Last updated:
If the past few months have brought you bouts of insomnia or early morning wakefulness, we have practical advice

Need to speak to a GP today?

Book appointment

It’s perfectly natural to feel stressed about a situation that you can’t control – and the coronavirus pandemic fits that bill for most people. But while getting a good night’s sleep is vital for your physical and emotional wellbeing, it can also be the first thing to suffer in times of uncertainty.

‘If you’re not going out to work, are less physically active during the day and are feeling more stressed, it can impact on the quality of your sleep.’ says Jesper Enander, Chief Psychologist at KRY/Livi.

‘If you’re having sleep issues on a regular basis, it can undermine your physical, emotional and mental health.’

Here are some of the ways your sleep might be suffering.

1. You can’t sleep

If you’re lying in bed worrying, your body will be in a state of high alert. Instead of winding down for sleep, it continues to produce stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. If you’re stressed when you go to bed instead of dipping, they stay elevated, keeping you alert and awake.

2. You’re waking in the early hours

If your body is producing too much cortisol you might be struck with an unwelcome hit of wakefulness around 3-4am. Under normal conditions, cortisol helps to regulate bodily processes, including blood sugar levels, metabolism and inflammation. But too much produced over a prolonged period disrupts sleep.

3. You’re having vivid dreams

Are your dreams more vivid lately? Social scientists from the UK’s University of Swansea’s Department of Psychology have said many people are reporting longer and more intense dreams since the pandemic. With so many now working from home, they theorised, people are sleeping longer in the mornings and having more non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is when dreams are more intense. ‘Many people are more fearful and worried by the events that are unfolding now, so it’s not surprising dreams are more vivid,’ says Enander. ‘Dreams are one of the ways we process what’s happening in the day. If your life feels more stressful it will be reflected in your dreams.’

How to deal with stress for better sleep quality

No matter how anxious, stressed or helpless you feel about the current situation, it is possible to counteract your body’s reaction to stress.

Try a 5-minute meditation

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, regular meditation can bring about physiological changes that will help you to feel physically and mentally calmer. Try this daily for 5 minutes or longer:

  • Find a quiet place to sit comfortably where you won’t be disturbed
  • Close your eyes
  • Inhale and exhale slowly and deeply. Focus on each breath
  • You can also choose a word or mantra such as ‘love’, ‘joy’, ‘peace’, ‘perfect health’ and focus on it.

Use yoga to relax

Yoga can help to reduce stress and anxiety and now research shows it can aid sleep too. Try these three yoga poses before going to bed:

  • Legs up the wall - Sit sideways against a wall with your legs straight out in front of you. Gently lower yourself to lie on your back on the floor and raise your legs straight up the wall. Keep your hands and arms relaxed at your sides
  • Lying butterfly pose - Lie flat on your back, dropping your knees out to the sides, pressing the soles of your feet together
  • Relaxation pose - Lie on your back with arms and legs straight but relaxed. Keep your hands open, palms up. Roll your ankles open to the sides.

Hold each pose for 1-5 minutes, breathing slowly and deeply.

Try a simple breathing technique

When you inhale slowly and deeply, you take in more oxygen and this brings down your heart rate and blood pressure. Before bed or if you wake up in the early morning, lie down and focus on your breathing. Inhale gently for 4 seconds and exhale gently for 4. Repeat for 1-5 minutes.

Talk about your dreams

One way to make sense of what you’re feeling is to talk about your dreams. This can be helpful because dreams are metaphors for what’s going on in your daily life, so they reveal what’s going on for you emotionally.

Sleep better with good pre-bed hygiene

As well as reducing stress there are simple, practical steps you can take to ensure a good night’s sleep. Enander recommends the following:

  • Try to set a routine and go to bed at the same time every day
  • Make sure your bedroom isn’t too hot or too cold. The ideal temperature for sleeping is 14-18C (60-64F)
  • Enjoy a bath 90 minutes before bed. This lowers your core body temperature, signalling to your brain that you’re ready for sleep
  • Avoid stimulants such as alcohol, coffee, tea and energy drinks six hours before you plan to go to sleep
  • Exercise regularly, every day. If you’re not expending enough physical energy, it is harder to get to sleep. Ideally, do this outside during the day (if you can) as daylight helps to normalise your sleep/wake cycle
  • Practise some form of relaxation before bedtime such as yoga, meditation or breathing exercises
  • Try not to watch the news or read anything that will make you feel stressed last thing at night
  • Only use your bedroom for reading, sleeping and making love, so you don’t associate it with work or other activities
  • Keep technology out of the bedroom as the blue light from laptops and mobiles will keep you awake (it stops your body from producing enough of the sleep hormone, melatonin).

Get expert advice and tips

Sign up to get the best of our health content delivered right to your inbox.