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Can't Sleep? Unravel the Connection Between Stress and Insomnia.

Are you tossing and turning at night, plagued by worries and anxieties? You're not alone. Stress-induced insomnia is a common sleep disorder that affects many people. But what's the connection between stress and insomnia? I'll delve into this relationship with insights from neurophysiology.


The Link Between Stress and Insomnia: A Closer Look

Understanding Stress

Stress is a natural response to threats or challenges, even minor things you may be unaware of. One can feel stress in response to significant life changes, like moving or a new boss coming into your workplace. But small things may also induce stress, like crowds or constant background noise.

These sources trigger our body's sympathetic mobilization system, responsible for the evolutionary flight/fight response. In other words, when stressed, we're prepared for survival. We are ready to either confront or escape danger.

But these daily or common situations, like a refrigerator hum or moving to a new apartment, aren't "dangers" we can run away from or fight. These small to large daily insults accumulate in our bodies, felt as chronic stress. When stress becomes chronic, it can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds, leading to various health problems, including insomnia.

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How Stress Affects Sleep Quality

Disrupted Sleep Cycle

Stress can disrupt our sleep cycle, making falling or staying asleep difficult. This disruption can lead to a vicious cycle where stress leads to poor sleep and more stress. This also influences behavior and overall wellbeing.

"... higher evening stress predicted subsequent shorter sleep quantity, and shorter sleep quantity and continuity predicted higher next-day stress. These findings highlight the vicious daily cycle between high stress and short or discontinuous sleep, which may increase the risk or accelerate the progression of mental and physical disorders." (NCBI)

Non-Restorative Sleep

Stress can disrupt sleep, making it less refreshing, a condition known as non-restorative sleep (NRS). This leaves us feeling tired and groggy the next day.

One study found that "feeling less refreshed after sleep is negatively associated with all [Quality of Life] domains... NRS prevents the human body from functioning optimally, causes daytime sleepiness, cognitive impairment, and mood disturbances, and jeopardizes daily performance in studying, working, and engaging in entertainment."

This shows that stress affects not only our sleep but also our ability to handle the next day's challenges. Addressing stress and improving sleep quality is crucial for our overall well-being.

Sleep Quality Affects Stress

This study supports this idea, finding the quality of sleep a person gets can influence how their stress levels affect their behaviors. When a person is stressed, their sleep quality can decrease, leading to poor health behaviors. Poor sleep quality can make it harder for a person to manage their stress levels effectively, leading to unhealthy behaviors such as poor diet or increased alcohol consumption.

When stressed, one may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. This further compiles their feelings of stress with self-judgment, shame, and blame. All of these emotions come from Polyvagal states of defense.

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The Impact of Chronic Stress on Insomnia

The Effect of Chronic Stress

Chronic stress can have a profound impact on our sleep. The constant state of mobilized alertness can lead to persistent insomnia.

Polyvagal Stillness is Necessary for Sleep

The science of the Polyvagal Theory (PVT), a cornerstone of my podcast and therapeutic work, provides further insight into understanding stress and what is necessary for sleep.

The PVT teaches that we have two parasympathetic nervous systems - one for safety and social engagement and the other for immobilization when under life threat. We also have a sympathetic system responsible for mobilization and flight/fight when in danger.

Remaining in flight/fight results in stress. If one is stressed, they are not exiting their mobilization state. They cannot access their body's natural states of safety and immobilization. When one is safe and immobilized, that results in a mixed Polyvagal state called "stillness." To fall asleep, one must be able to immobilize and feel safe. In stress, one does not feel safe; their body is prepared for danger.

So when you're asleep, your safety state is active and providing you with "health, growth, and restoration," something that Dr. Stephen Porges often says. Porges created the Polyvagal Theory and is the co-founder of the Polyvagal Institute.

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Short-Term vs. Long-Term Insomnia

Short-Term Insomnia

Short-term insomnia, also known as acute insomnia, is typically caused by temporary stressors, like a big exam or a stressful event. It usually resolves once the stressor is removed.

In other words, the life context triggering the stress is passed or effectively dealt with. The body can now immobilize in stillness without fear and stress.

Long-Term Insomnia

Long-term insomnia, also known as chronic insomnia, persists for several months or longer. Chronic stress, medical conditions, or certain lifestyle factors can cause it. Chronic insomnia can have serious health consequences and often requires professional treatment.

Stress-induced chronic insomnia indicates the individual's body is chronically in a state of defensive activation. Chronic defensive state activation (flight, fight, shutdown, freeze) is common for traumatized individuals. People stuck in trauma have significant difficulties accessing their body's natural capacity to feel safe and exist in stillness.

boy-relaxing-in-meadow

How Stress Affects Your Body's Systems

The Polyvagal Theory teaches that if your body exists in a chronically defensive (stressful) state, it is no longer optimized for health. Instead of using its resources for healing and growth, it uses them for defense. People stuck in a state of defense are more likely to have many disorders, as shown by the Adverse Childhood Experiences survey results.

The Impact of Stress

Stress can have a wide-ranging impact on our bodies, affecting everything from our cardiovascular system to our digestive system. It can lead to various physical symptoms, from headaches and stomachaches to heart disease and diabetes. Here are some of the ways stress can impact different body systems:

  • Cardiovascular system: Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and other heart-related issues. (Mayo Clinic)

  • Digestive system: Stress exacerbates stomachaches, ulcers, and other digestive problems. (Henry Ford Health)

  • Immune system: Chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to infections. (Nature)

  • Musculoskeletal system: Stress can lead to muscle contractions and restricted blood flow. (Alliance)

  • Nervous system: Chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

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Strategies to Relieve Stress and Improve Sleep Quality

You might be stuck doing random TikTok "vagal nerve hacks," like putting frozen pea bags on your chest to get to sleep. If pea bags help you, fine. But I recommend something different.

Instead of pea bags, it may help to increase your body's activation of its safety state. Your ability to exist in stillness increases as you anchor yourself more in safety.

But don't wait for insomnia to hit. Practice feeling safety beforehand. Practice feeling safety during the day when you're with your pets, walking, or cooking dinner. Mindfully experience your body's capacity for safety and welcome it with curiosity.

How to identify your Polyvagal safety state.

Of course, you won't be able to measure the activation of these ventral vagal parasympathetic pathways directly. But you can use secondary measures to identify your safety state. Here are a few ways you can identify that you're in your safety state:

  • you can breathe into your belly

  • you feel connected to your senses, yourself, or another (even pets)

  • you're able to smile

  • you're thinking positively

As you practice being in your safety state, you increase the strength of your safety state. Eventually, falling asleep may be more accessible. Building Safety Anchors is a great source to learn about the safety state and build its strength.

Reduce insomnia by changing your environment.

Cues of safety or danger in our environment constantly surround us. Even right now, your body is "neurocepting" cues from the external world through your senses. Some of these cues come from:

  • lighting

  • proximity

  • temperature

  • color

To access your Polyvagal safety state:

  • Consider what you can change in your environment. You may do better with a specific scent, lighting, sounds, or even silence.

  • Be curious about how your environment affects you and then change what you can.

  • Ask yourself if a specific environmental piece brings you a feeling of more like or dislike.

Seek Professional Help

If you're struggling with a sleep disorder, seeking professional help is important. A healthcare provider can provide a proper diagnosis and treatment plan, including stress management techniques, medication, or therapy. The National Sleep Foundation provides a wealth of resources and information on sleep disorders and treatments.

If you are stuck in a traumatized state, working with a qualified therapist may be helpful.

Get better sleep.

Want to learn more about reducing your stress, relieving your trauma, and getting better sleep? My Total Access Membership provides the courses to deeply understand the Polyvagal Theory, strengthen your safety state, and reduce defensive state activation.

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Master Panic Attacks: Understanding the difference between coping and self-regulation.

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Experiencing a panic attack is like being trapped in a turbulent storm of fear and physical sensations. Your heart races, your breath becomes shallow, and a sense of impending doom takes hold. It feels like losing control as your thoughts spin and your body trembles with adrenaline. Time stretches, and each second feels like an eternity. It's an overwhelming and disorienting experience.

 

Q&A

Q: How does stress affect sleep quality?

A: Stress disrupts the sleep cycle, leading to difficulties falling and staying asleep. It can also result in non-restorative sleep, leaving you tired and groggy the next day.

Q: What is the impact of chronic stress on insomnia?

A: Chronic stress can lead to persistent insomnia, as the body remains in a constant state of alertness and defense, hindering the ability to access the necessary state of stillness for restful sleep.

Q: How can I improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia?

A: Increasing your body's activation of the safety state through mindful safety experiences during the day can help improve sleep. Changing your environment to create safety cues can also positively impact your sleep quality.

 

3 Quotes from this Blog:

When stress becomes chronic, it can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds, leading to various health problems, including insomnia.
Chronic stress can have a profound impact on our sleep. The constant state of mobilized alertness can lead to persistent insomnia.
Reduce insomnia by changing your environment. Consider what you can change in your environment... Be curious about how your environment affects you and then change what you can.
 

Author Bio:

Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He hosts the Stuck Not Broken podcast and is the author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. Justin is a member of the Polyvagal Institute's Editorial Board.

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