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May 13, 2021

Sleep and Stress: How Sleep Affects Your Mental Health

There’s no denying the relationship between sleep and mental health. When you feel anxious or stressed out, you don’t sleep. And when you don’t sleep, you feel extra anxious and extra stressed out. Indeed, sleep and stress are closely connected — 43 percent of Americans say stress has caused them to lay awake at night in the past month — and understanding why can help you kick the stress and boost your sleep quality (and, in turn, your life). In this guide, we’ll cover all the basics so you feel more relaxed at night and can reach all your goals during the day.

The Stress-Insomnia Cycle

We don’t need studies to prove that sleep is crucial to good health. One night of tossing and turning and you feel completely out of sorts, both mentally and physically. We’ve all felt anxious and high-strung after a night without a high-quality snooze session. The next day, the lack of sleep equals irritability, anxiousness, depression and the inability to focus, among other frustrating effects that hold us back.

At the same time, when we don’t sleep, our bodies are not equipped to handle the stressors of the day, which can worsen anxiety, depression and general worries. This is the stress-insomnia cycle. Not getting enough sleep leads to more stress and more stress leads to not getting enough sleep. But why is this? Read on to learn all about why both of these things happen and how to manage them so you rest better.

Why Less Sleep Equals More Stress

Have you ever noticed that, even if you don’t struggle with chronic anxiety, you feel anxious after a night or two without solid sleep? That’s no coincidence. In fact, research from the University of California, Berkeley shows that a sleepless night can cause up to a 30 percent rise in anxiety levels.

But why? It’s complicated, but when you don’t sleep, the body does not recharge the tools it needs to regulate mood, judgment and stress. Although scientists still aren’t exactly sure why, disruptions in sleep can cause certain detrimental effects in the body, such as:

lack of sleep quote

  • Changes in the Brain’s Neurotransmitters — Studies show that frequently restricted and disrupted sleep can cause changes in the brain’s neurotransmitters, which can impair thinking and prevent proper emotional regulation. This is one way that poor quality sleep worsens the effects of mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression.
  • Reduced Activity in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex — When you’re sleep deprived, your brain doesn’t get the exercise it needs. In fact, researchers have discovered that a lack of sleep causes impaired activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain linked to emotional control. In contrast, lack of sleep minimizes regulation of the amygdala — the part of the brain that helps regulate fear — which may be why you feel extra scared, jittery or anxious when you’re under-slept.
  • Less Slow-Wave Sleep — When you don’t sleep well, you’re unlikely to reach the stages of sleep that are known to help you regulate emotions, worry and stress. Scientists believe that the kind of sleep most beneficial to anxiety and stress is the deepest phase of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) slow-wave sleep. During this phase, the body’s heart rate and blood pressure drop. Without this stage of sleep, the body may not get what it needs to regulate stress and anxiety. 

Why More Stress Equals Less Sleep

stressed woman in bed

Naturally, when you’re stressed out, you don’t sleep as well. The reasons why are obvious — your mind races, your heart rate shoots up, you can’t seem to calm down. But there are some specific physiological responses happening that you may not even be aware of that could be preventing you from sinking into a deep state of quality sleep. A few things happen when you’re stressed out, including: 

  • A Release of Stress Hormones — When you’re stressed, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) releases stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause a variety of undesirable p.m. effects that prevent you from falling asleep, including raised heart rate, increased breathing and muscle tension. Tip: Cuddling up with a weighted blanket can help relax the nervous system and decrease cortisol so you can drift off to sleep faster.
  • The Mind Races and Anxieties Set In — Regardless of if you’re stressed out about something specific or you suffer from an anxiety disorder, the excess worry and fear that happens at bedtime will prevent you from getting a good night of sleep. For many of us, anxiety is worse at night because there’s nothing else to distract us. Without work, TV, phones and the stimulation of the day, negative thoughts can more easily creep into your mind. 
  • Gastrointestinal Upset — Another disruptive thing that happens when you’re stressed out? Tummy troubles. This is because, in part, the gut is controlled by the central nervous system, and stress — which the body treats as a threat — activates the body’s fight-or-flight response, which triggers gastrointestinal upset. Naturally, if you experience nausea, cramping, bloating, diarrhea or stomach pain at bedtime, you’re less likely to get high-quality sleep.
  • Obesity and Sleep Disorders — Did you know that people who suffer from chronic stress are more likely to be obese and vice versa? On top of that, if you’re overweight or obese, you’re much more likely to experience chronic sleep loss as a result of a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. So, however indirectly, your stress may be causing weight problems that lead to insomnia.

What Happens If You Don’t Address It?

prolonged sleep issues

If you’re able to draw a clear correlation between your lack of sleep and high stress levels, it’s important that you do everything you can to reduce stress in order to boost sleep. Prolonged sleep issues can cause serious long-term health effects, including hypertension, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity, memory loss, immune system deficiency and more. In the short-term, it can lead to problems at work, in your personal life and beyond. Getting adequate sleep is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

How to Curb Stress and Improve Sleep

So, with all of this in mind, how do you calm the mind, kick the stress to the curb and get yourself back on the good sleep train? Luckily, there are a few tried and true tricks that will help you quiet the mind so you feel ready to soak up those sweet, sweet Zzzs. Here are our best tips for curbing stress-related insomnia.

helpful ways to improve sleep

  • Try a Weighted Blanket — There’s no denying the relaxing effects of a calming weighted blanket. These cozy accessories envelop you in a layer of soft warmth and gentle weight that feels like a great, big hug. Weighted blankets work by using the power of deep pressure stimulation, which helps increase calming hormones like serotonin and melatonin while decreasing stress hormones like cortisol. Plus, Gravity Blankets’ weighted blankets are made from super-soft materials that feel amazing when you get into bed.
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  • Try Mindfulness Meditation — If you’ve not yet tried mindfulness meditation, you’re in for a big treat in the form of better sleep (and a happier life). Meditation helps practitioners focus on the specific thoughts, feelings and emotions of the moment, rather than getting hung up on the past or future, which can often trigger anxiety and depression. In fact, one study showed that meditation helped reduce insomnia, fatigue and depression. The best way to get started with meditation is to use a mindfulness app, such as Calm.
  • Avoid Sleep Disruptions — As we already covered, disruptions in sleep can cause stress because they prevent the body from reaching the deep sleep state responsible for regulating mood and emotions. It’s crucial that you create a comfortable, distraction-free sleep space so you don’t get kicked out of a productive sleep session. If you need to sleep when it’s light out or can’t control the lighting, use a weighted eye mask or invest in room-darkening curtains. Sleeping with ear plugs or a white noise machine can help deter auditory disruptions that could pull you from a restful sleep.
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  • Create a Sleep Sanctuary — In order to ensure that you don’t have any distractions that could lower sleep quality, spend some time turning your bedroom into a comfortable sleep sanctuary. Top the bed with dreamy luxury bedding that helps regulate temperature as well as plush pillows that eliminate pain and pressure points. You may also want to consider burning calming essential oils in scents that can help you let go of the stressors of the day, such as lavender or chamomile. Eliminate any environmental issues that could take you out of a deep sleep, including temperature fluctuations.
  • Eliminate P.M. Stimuli — We know it’s hard, but do everything in your power to avoid screens and other stimuli in the hour or so leading up to bedtime. Mindless scrolling through social media, texting friends, reading the news or even playing games seems harmless, but it can fire up the brain and cause you to feel hyper-alert, which will prevent you from winding down and getting a good night of sleep. On the same token, make sure to avoid any stimulants before bedtime, such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
  • Listen to Relaxing Music or Sleep Sounds — One of the reasons why you might not be getting good sleep is because your stress levels cause the mind to race, preventing you from getting to sleep and staying asleep throughout the night. However, playing some calming, relaxing music or gentle sleep sounds can help quiet the mind so you can drift off to sleep. Relaxing music can help stimulate parts of the autonomic nervous system, which will in turn cause you to experience slower breathing and a reduced heart rate. 
  • Take a Break — For the busy and overcommitted, taking a break can seem daunting and even impossible, but it may be exactly what you need to get quality sleep and enjoy your day-to-day life. Whether it’s a long weekend away from work (and technology, if that’s one of your big stressors) or a beach vacation with no agenda, taking a few days to free the mind of the typical day-to-day stress will definitely help improve sleep quality. 
  • See Your Doctor or Therapist — If you’ve tried everything and still can’t seem to get a good night of sleep, you may want to turn to a physician or a mental health therapist for help. A professional will be able to determine if your stress levels are linked to a greater issue — whether it be your physical health, your mental health or your environment — and may recommend medication or therapy to help treat the problem. Treating the underlying issue is the best course of action when it comes to sleep and stress.

man wearing sleeping mask

The Takeaway: Good Sleep Equals Good Health

Sleep is still one of the less-understood facets of human health, but we have some telling insight on the relationship between a good night’s rest and stress. Understanding exactly why stress causes a lack of sleep will help you attack the problem head-on, which will allow you to get back on a healthy sleep schedule and enjoy your life now and in the future. Gravity Blankets is here to help you create a luxurious sleep space so you get the best, most restorative sleep possible.


Image Credits

Antonio Guillem/

Roman Samborskyi/


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