Stress and Insomnia - What's the Link?

Did you know that there's a link between stress and insomnia? In fact, stress impacts both sleep quality and duration. Keep reading to learn more.
Stress and Insomnia - What's the Link?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Stress and insomnia are linked. Stress largely impacts sleep quality and duration. Lack of sleep and stress can both have a severe impact on physical and mental health . Experts recommend people to get between seven and eight hours of sleep a night. Nevertheless, this depends on their age and other factors. 

According to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 35 percent of adults in America get less than seven hours of sleep each night.  This can lead to a sleep deficit that results in lasting physical and mental health problems. Although the exact role of sleep isn’t clear, research shows that it facilitates a wide range of bodily processes. These include physical changes, such as muscle repair, and mental tasks, including concentration.

2020 was a stressful year for people in the United States. The American Psychological Association performed a survey last year about stress levels in the country. They concluded that general stress levels are significantly above average compared to years past. In fact, last year’s respondents reported the highest average stress levels since 2007 .

You can attribute these figures to the COVID-19 pandemic and its implications on finances, parenting, and other aspects of life. Stress and anxiety usually lead to insomnia and sleep problems. By the same token, lack of proper rest can contribute to stress.

Stress and sleep problems surely share such a reciprocal relationship. Addressing one of these issues can lead to improvements for the other.

An image of a stressed out man in bed.

Stress and the body

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis regulates your body’s hormonal response to stressful situations. The hypothalamus, a cluster of nuclei in the brain, instructs the pituitary gland to release a hormone. Then, it signals the adrenal glands to produce the steroid hormone glucocorticoid. Two of these glucocorticoids are cortisol and adrenaline, which are stress hormones.

Your body naturally produces cortisol throughout the day. The levels spike immediately after you wake up and gradually decrease throughout the day. This cortisol the HPA regulates is the reason why you often feel hyper-alert during stressful situations. Even so, it can make you “crash” when the stress subsides.

Types of stress

Although stress takes many forms, these feelings fall into one of three categories:

  • Acute stress. This type of short-term stress usually accompanies fleeting moments of panic or dread. Examples include realizing you missed a work or school deadline or nearly being involved in a car accident. You may notice an increased blood pressure and heart rate, followed by irritability, sadness, and anxiety. Some people also experience headaches, back pain, and gastrointestinal issues. However, the symptoms of acute stress typically subside after a short time.
  • Episodic acute stress. This type of stress is essentially an accumulation of individual moments of acute stress. People who feel burdened by struggles may try to relieve their frustrations through unhealthy behaviors like overeating or binge drinking. Other serious complications of episodic acute stress include clinical depression and heart disease. Poor work performance and relationship problems are other symptoms.
  • Chronic stress. Many factors can contribute to chronic stress, including poverty, abuse, and trauma. People usually tend to internalize these painful experiences. Over time, this can wear down the mind and lead to feelings of hopelessness. Chronic stress causes deficiencies related to how the HPA axis processes stressful situations and communicates with the body.

Stress and insomnia

How does stress affect sleep? Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that derives from stress. Insomnia refers to a persistent difficulty with sleep onset, maintenance, consolidation, or overall quality. It occurs even if you allow adequate time for sleep on a given night and a comfortable sleeping place. People with insomnia experience excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, irritability, and other impairments when they’re awake. 

Current estimates suggest that between ten and 30 percent of adults live with insomnia. Doctors may diagnose a person with chronic insomnia if their symptoms occur at least three times per week. This should happen for at least three months. Persistent stressors can heavily contribute to chronic insomnia. These stressors may include:

  • Work problems or dissatisfaction.
  • Divorce and other marital or family difficulties.
  • The death of a loved one.
  • Major illness or injury.
  • Crucial life changes.
  • Financial loss.

Not everyone develops chronic insomnia due to constant stress, but those with anxiety disorder are at higher risk of experiencing symptom s of insomnia. Additionally, changes to your sleep schedule that occur due to life events or changes can also lead to insomnia. When chronic insomnia takes hold, people feel anxious about sleeping and other aspects of their lives. This increases day-to-day stress, which, in turn, exacerbates insomnia symptoms.

The symptoms of insomnia

  • Feelings of fatigue and malaise.
  • Difficulty paying attention, concentrating, or accessing memories.
  • Impaired performance in social, family, professional, or academic settings.
  • Irritability and mood disturbances.
  • Hyperactivity, aggression, impulsivity, and other behavioral issues.
  • Decreased energy and motivation.
  • Increased risk for errors and accidents.

If someone experiences insomnia symptoms for less than three months, then they suffer from short-term insomnia. Just as chronic stress can precipitate chronic insomnia, acute stressors can bring about short-term insomnia symptoms. Acute stress may also occur if you made significant changes to your bedroom or sleep area. For example, new parents may experience insomnia when they share their bedroom with their baby for the first time.

This happens even if the child isn’t audibly disruptive. Children may also have sleep problems immediately after they begin sharing their room with a sibling. Visiting or moving to a new location can lead to short-term insomnia as well. Short-term insomnia symptoms may begin to dissipate once the stressful situation ends and acute stress subsides. However, some people fall into a vicious pattern of sleep loss and daytime anxiety about sleep. This eventually snowballs into chronic insomnia. 

In addition to insomnia, chronic stress can lead to sleep apnea. A recurring collapse of the upper airway during sleep characterizes this sleep disorder. The disorder causes heavy snoring and choking episodes, along with excessive daytime sleepiness and many other impairments. 

Hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and other medical conditions that you attribute to stress are predisposing factors for sleep apnea. Furthermore, obesity is also a major risk factor. Like insomnia, sleep apnea can exacerbate stress by disrupting your sleep and wearing you down during the day.

How sleep helps stress

Are your sleep problems a major source of your day-to-day anxiety ? Getting enough sleep on a nightly basis can relieve stress quite effectively. Unfortunately, a good night’s rest can be elusive if you feel stressed out. 

You can take other measures to relieve stress. These include regularly exercising and maintaining a healthy support network of friends and family. Nonetheless, keeping stress at bay often demands adequate sleep. 

National Sleep Foundation guidelines advise that healthy adults should sleep between seven and nine hours each night. Effectively managing your stress is key to a good night’s sleep . How well you manage stress can depend on your day-to-day lifestyle. In addition to following a balanced diet and exercising throughout the week, you can relieve stress through controlled breathing. 

If you don’t practice yoga, you can try other relaxation techniques . A healthy work-life balance is also important. Your ability to productively “release” stress during situations that cause stress, and not at other moments, is vital. Proper sleep hygiene can also improve your sleep quality and duration, leaving you more refreshed in the morning. It also prepares you to manage stress. 

Clever ideas for proper sleep hygiene

Check out these sleep hygiene guidelines:

  • Strict sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. This includes on weekends and when you travel or go on vacation.
  • Optimal bedroom atmosphere. Your bedroom should have a relaxing effect when you’re ready for sleep. You should keep the lights dim and reduce exposure to outside noise. A comfortable temperature is also key. Experts generally recommend 60 to 67 degrees, though 65 degrees is ideal.
  • No electronics. Televisions, computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices emit a blue light that can interfere with sleep. For best sleep results, keep these devices out of your bedroom at all times.
  • Reduced evening intake. Avoid consuming nicotine and caffeine in the hours leading up to bedtime. These stimulants can keep you feeling alert when it’s your normal time for sleep. Alcohol can also be problematic for sleep. Many people think that drinking helps sleep due to alcohol’s sedative properties. However, you may experience sleep fragmentation. Lastly, you should avoid big meals before bed.
  • Exercise regularly. Moderate exercise in the morning or early afternoon is important. Not only does it help you wind down but it also helps you fall asleep more easily at night.

Lying in bed when you’re too stressed to sleep is counterproductive. If you didn’t go to sleep within 15 minutes, move. Just get up and relocate to another area for a relaxing activity. For instance, reading, meditating, or listening to calming music.

Some people experience stress and anxiety while they try to sleep. This happens when they wake up in the middle of the night and see the time on their clock. Therefore, avoid looking at your bedside clock if you wake up. Perhaps you can cover the display if necessary.

Other stress management tips

Some people find stress relief through cognitive behavioral stress management (CBSM). This form of short-term therapy pinpoints the way your thoughts affect how you behave. It also pinpoints the way your beliefs affect the way you interact with the world around you. By identifying irrational or inaccurate thoughts and replacing them with positive ones, you’ll change your behaviors and your outlook.

Studies show that CBSM is an effective measure for various groups that tend to experience undue stress. For example, professional nurses, people with substance abuse disorders, and individuals living with HIV. Incidentally, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-i), also proves effective for relieving insomnia symptoms . It helps people overcome misconceptions or negative beliefs about sleep to get more rest, while overcoming i nsomnia

CBT-i emphasizes sleep restriction and the importance of getting out of bed on sleepless nights. It also emphasizes proper sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques. Besides following sleep hygiene guidelines and pursuing CBSM therapy, people effectively manage their stress by taking the following measures:

  • Learn to recognize stress. Stress elicits different reactions from everyone. These may include trouble sleeping, dependence on alcohol or drugs, feelings of irritability, and anger. They also include low levels of energy and motivation. Recognizing these reactions is key to understanding when you’re stressed.
  • Engage in relaxing activities. When you perform them correctly, meditation, muscle relaxation, and controlled breathing exercises can help relieve stress. Incorporating these wellness activities into your regular routine can reduce stress to a significant degree.
  • Create goals for yourself. Giving up and not caring about what comes next are hallmarks of desperation. Stress, especially at the chronic level, can induce these negative feelings. Thus, maintain a positive mindset by setting reasonable goals in your social, family, and professional life.
An image of a happy woman reading in bed.

Reach out to your support system and your doctor

Maintaining consistent communication lines with your friends and family members can reduce stress through emotional support. Some people also find comfort through connecting with community groups and religious organizations. Initiate the “stress talk” with your doctor. If you don’t check your stress, it can be overwhelming. Take a proactive approach toward stress management by scheduling an appointment with your doctor.

In short, stress and insomnia are closely linked. Stress can adversely affect sleep quality and duration, while insufficient sleep can increase stress levels. Both stress and a lack of sleep can lead to lasting physical and mental health problems. 

It’s crucial for people that have issues with stress or lack of sleep to not tackle these problems alone . Mental health professionals can provide care and guidance, and friends and family members can offer additional support. Was this article helpful?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Dadnam, D., Dadnam, C. & Al-Saffar, H. Pandemic bruxism . Br Dent J 230, 271 (2021).
  • Kim, E. J., & Dimsdale, J. E. (2007). The effect of psychosocial stress on sleep: a review of polysomnographic evidence. Behavioral sleep medicine5(4), 256–278.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.