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How does Stress Affect Sleep?

Sleep and stress are connected tightly. Epidemiological studies report a gradual decline in average sleep time in developed countries since the end of the 19th century. That drop has been even more pronounced in the last few decades. At the same time, these studies report a commensurate increase in anxiety. This makes perfect sense because sleep deprivation increases stress, which in turn creates hyperarousal and more sleep difficulties: an inability to fall asleep quickly, insufficient sleep or lack of refreshing sleep.

Poor sleep, hyperarousal and stress are tightly interwoven, so decreasing the hyperarousal level (as expressed by stress measures) during the day is an important aspect of improving sleep.

Stress is a function of many physiological processes, in particular the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. That system takes care of background functions that sustain life (breathing, rhythm and intensity of heartbeats, body temperature regulation, sweating, digestion and blood flow – to name just a few) and the secretion of certain hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

The autonomic nervous system has two sides: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The former stimulates heart activity and prepares individuals to “fight or flee” in response to danger, stress or a need to react quickly. The latter does the opposite and is associated with slowing down, relaxing and restoring – essentially “rest and digest”. Overall, this system keeps the human organism safe and performing optimally.

Stress can be assessed in many ways, but most are subjective questionnaires. A few are invasive (blood tests to assess levels of certain hormones, for example.) The mathematical evaluation of heart rate fluctuations that are governed by the autonomic nervous system provides insight into individual stress levels. In practical terms, it’s a feedback mechanism for looking at ways to change stress levels.

How can you improve your sleep?

Use our Sleep-Life Balance Program for a few days to identify sleep-wake patterns and to measure sleep duration, efficiency and structure. If those measurements suggest a condition that warrants further investigation, you may want to consult a physician for an in-depth sleep evaluation. Otherwise, we will provide you with personalized advice on how to improve your sleep.

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