How Stress Affects Sleep: Tips for a Restful Night’s Sleep

stress affects sleep

Think shirking your zzzz’s is a good idea? Think again.

Getting enough sleep is a major factor in helping our brain encode memories and make connections. Our brains process information every night, often working through thoughts and problems while we sleep. If you’ve ever woken up with a fresh perspective on a problem or decision, that’s your brain doing its work to help you subconsciously process memories, thoughts, and information.

Spending enough time in REM sleep helps with abstract problem solving. In a Harvard Medical School study, researchers found that subjects can solve 30% more anagram word puzzles following REM sleep than non-REM sleep. While word puzzles are trivial and not the same as major life decisions, it’s clear that sleep can help you work through complex problems.

REM sleep is particularly helpful in supporting creative solutions. A UC San Diego study found that participants scored 40 percent better on a creativity test after REM sleep. This stage of sleep seems to help with creative solutions more than any other stage of sleep. Some people believe that dreams offer a way for the unconscious mind to explore and work out problems and decisions. Often, artists use dreams to support their creative process, using ideas that have come to them in a dream.


How Stress Interferes with Sleep

Although sleep is important to making good decisions, everyday stress, and the stress of worrying about decisions can make it difficult to get the sleep you need. Stress can cause nighttime anxiety that makes it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. In fact, seven out of ten adults who experience persistent stress or excessive anxiety daily say they have trouble sleeping.

Stress can cause significant sleep problems. The release of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can make you feel more alert. This makes it difficult to calm down and get rest. At the same time, stress reduces the production of serotonin, which is needed to induce feelings of sleepiness.

Further, sleep deprivation can cause more stress and anxiety. When you don’t get enough sleep, you can experience irritability, cognitive impairment, and impaired moral judgment. These effects can make it difficult to function in daily life and make good decisions.


How You Can Improve Your Sleep

Stress is a part of everyday life, and the fact is there’s not much you can do to avoid it. However, you can change how you react to it. Meditation, a good bedtime routine, and a healthy sleep environment can all contribute to the reduction of stress and support a good night’s sleep that can help you sleep on important decisions.


Tip #1: Practice Meditation

Meditation offers a mind-calming practice that can reduce fatigue, anxiety, and depression. With meditation, you focus on the present moment to promote a relaxation response  and  relieve anxiety that can make sleeping difficult. Consider progressive muscle relaxation, mindful breathing, counting meditation, or guided meditation to help you relax and promote a good night’s sleep.


TIP #2: Design a Regular Bedtime Routine

What you do before bed each night matters. With a healthy bedtime routine, you’ll go through the same few steps before bed each night, signaling to your brain that it’s time to settle down and rest. It can be as simple as brushing your teeth and reading a few pages of a book before turning out the light. Your bedtime routine should also include a regular sleeping schedule, even on the weekends, that offers predictability. When you maintain a regular sleep schedule, your brain and body will start to get tired at the same time each night, making it easier to fall asleep.


TIP #3: Create a Healthy Sleep Environment

Your bedroom should be an environment designed for sleep. Bedrooms should ideally be cool, dark, and quiet. Your mattress and bedding should be appropriate for your needs as well as the weather, keeping you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Remove clutter from your bedroom, choose calming colors for the walls, such as blue, and consider scents or aromatherapy that can offer a more calming environment. Maintain a temperature of about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure your room is kept dark and quiet, using blackout curtains and a white noise machine if necessary.

With consistent practice and a good routine…you can make bedtime less of a struggle and get the rest you need to be productive and alert for all your day’s tasks!





Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.



Tuck Sleep Foundation is a community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources. Tuck has been featured on NPR, Lifehacker, Radiolab and is referenced by many colleges/universities and sleep organizations across the web.

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