Stress is a very common issue for Americans. In fact, a 2017 study by the American Psychological Association found that 45% of Americans had lain awake at night in the past month due to stress. While a normal, healthy level of stress can be good, motivating you to get things done and meet your professional and personal goals, long-term, high-level stress can have a lot of negative effects on your body, with one majorly impacted area being your sleep.
This is a problem because quality sleep is critically important for long-term mental, emotional and physical health. The tricky part? You may be engaging in several common habits that you aren’t even aware of that are contributing to your stress and, in turn, negatively affecting your sleep. We break these habits down in more detail below and give you tips for changing them.
Staying Up Late Working
Working at night in front of a laptop screen can confuse your body about when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to be asleep, making it nearly impossible to actually wind down once bedtime rolls around. This is because your body’s circadian rhythm, or internal clock, is regulated by light. The blue light from cell phones, laptops and other screens throws off this internal clock and delays the production of melatonin, the hormone that lets your body know when it’s time to fall asleep — leaving you tossing and turning when the lights do finally go off. Additionally, staying up late working keeps your mind alert and spinning, instead of allowing it the proper time it needs to wind down.
All of this contributes to a poor night’s sleep, leading to low productivity and focus the next day. That low productivity and focus can increase your stress levels if, for example, tasks fail to get done and you have to work again that night, continuing the cycle. When this cycle becomes part of your regular routine, it can be hard to realize that it’s even affecting you.
The Solution: If working late is due to preference, consider changing your routine to only working during the day or be sure you sleep in enough the next morning so you are getting sufficient sleep. Additionally, try to get outside as soon as you wake up in the morning, if only for a minute or two, to expose your body to natural light and get your circadian rhythm on the right track. Lastly, put away screens at least an hour before bed. These habits will help your body remain active during the day and slow down as bedtime approaches, setting you up for a great night’s sleep.
Drinking Too Much Caffeine
Caffeine increases adrenaline, which gives you that desired pick-me-up but may also increase stress. One small study found that, when compared to a placebo, caffeine more than doubled levels of epinephrine (or adrenaline) and cortisol (the body’s main stress hormone), and that these effects were the same in both habitual and light coffee users. Another study conducted on school-age children found that being a very high caffeine consumer predicted high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Although caffeine is generally safe for most people to consume in low and moderate amounts, it’s important to monitor your own mental and emotional health and consider if your caffeine intake is potentially contributing to stress.
Additionally, caffeine has a “half-life” of 3 to 5 hours, meaning that it takes 3 to 5 hours for your body to alleviate half of the drug from your system. The remaining caffeine can stay in your system for several hours, so those who drink coffee in the late afternoon put their sleep quality at major risk.
The Solution: If you often find yourself stressed, irritable, and nervous, assess how much caffeine you typically consume throughout the day and consider cutting back. It’s also a good idea to stop consuming all caffeine after noon to allow your body plenty of time to remove most of it from your system.
Not Exercising Regularly
Exercise is a great stress- and anxiety-reducer. While the exact reasons for why exercise is so beneficial for mental health are still being studied, its benefits are well documented: exercise can enhance mood and decrease stress. Exercising can also give you more energy, which is helpful for checking off tasks and engaging in activities that may be causing stress and anxiety. Additionally, by tiring yourself out a little bit with exercise during the day, you’ll help your body be more prepared for sleep at night.
The Solution: Get moving, even if it’s just a walk around the block several times a week. The benefits of exercise are well worth the work! Just be sure not to work out too late in the evening, stopping all physical activity about an hour or two before going to bed. The adrenaline can make it harder for some people to fall asleep if they work out too close to bedtime.
When Good Habits Aren’t Enough
While unchecked stress does play into poor sleep, there are indicators such as feeling chronically fatigued, snoring every night, waking up choking or gasping, or frequently waking up with a headache or sore throat in the morning that may be a sign that the sleep problems you’re experiencing are actually a larger issue. If you’re unable to get quality sleep even after adjusting your lifestyle habits, you should schedule an appointment with our practice to see if you qualify for sleep apnea treatment.