Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Has Sleep and Stress Become a Vicious Cycle in Your Life?

Why Sleep Should Be on the Top of Your To-Do List

According to a survey by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), over two-thirds of women associate their sleep problems with stress. Yet, when pressed for time, over half of the women polled said that sleep is the first thing they give up. Unfortunately, this is an all too common example of the short term gain, long term pain philosophy that is becoming more and more common in our overscheduled lives.

Stress leads to a loss of sleep and a loss of sleep leads to an increase in stress, which can become a vicious cycle. Sleep is a basic human need, and when we don't get enough of it, just about every aspect of our functioning is affected. We move slower. We're less productive. We're more irritable. We make poor decisions. We forget things. And all of these problems are exacerbated as we lose more and more sleep.

Excessive sleep loss has been linked to mood disorders, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, substance abuse, obesity, impaired judgment, reckless behavior, and increased accidents at home, work, and on the road. In fact, in the most severe cases of sleep deprivation, hallucinations and paranoid delusions can develop. The worse case scenario is death. The point is ... if something has to get bumped from your to-do list, the last thing it should be is sleep.

Why is sleep so important? Because it's the only block of time in our hectic lives that our bodies have a chance to recharge. Although our bodies are resting (hopefully) while we sleep, our brains aren't. In fact, the brain is very active during sleep.

Sleep is the time when our bodies and brains replenish themselves. This gets accomplished through what sleep experts call our "sleep architecture," a relatively predictable pattern that occurs in ninety minute cycles while we sleep. It involves an alternating pattern of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.

According to the NSF, "REM sleep is an active sleep where dreams occur, breathing and heart rate increase and become irregular, muscles relax and eyes move back and forth under the eyelids." It's characterized by a high level of mental and physical activity where your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing are very similar to what they are like when you're awake. REM sleeps accounts for about twenty-five percent of our sleep time and it first occurs about ninety minutes after you fall asleep. It is the REM stage of sleep that provides energy to your brain and body and helps you perform throughout the day.

The other seventy-five percent of our sleep time is spent in non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep has four distinct stages. Stage 1 is the beginning stage of drowsiness just as you're starting to doze off. Stage 2 represents the onset of actual sleep. Breathing and heart rate remain regular and body temperature drops. In Stages 3 and 4, our blood pressure lowers, our muscles relax, and our breathing slows down. Stages 3 and 4 are the deepest stages of sleep and provide our bodies with the best chance to restore what we used up during the daytime.

Sleep experts believe that the "best" sleep involves the right combination of REM and non-REM sleep. But how much is enough? Most sleep guidelines indicate that adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for optimum performance, health, and safety. However, as with most things, there isn't a magic number. Different people need different amounts of sleep, and these needs change at different stages of life. Babies need a lot of sleep. Adults need less, but they still need enough for healthy aging and functioning. Some adults may feel fine with seven hours of sleep a night while others need ten.

So how can you figure out how much sleep you need? Sleep experts recommend that you take a look at your individual lifestyle, needs, and habits. You should know by now how you react to different amounts of sleep. How are your mood, your concentration, and your energy level after six hours of sleep? After eight hours of sleep? That's often a good indication of how much sleep is best for you.

However, it's not necessarily that simple. NSF reports that the amount of sleep a person needs is influenced by two different factors. One is what researchers call a person's basal sleep need, which is the amount of sleep your body needs on a regular basis for optimal performance. The other is called sleep debt. Sleep debt is defined as the accumulated sleep that is lost over time due to poor sleep habits, sickness, insomnia, or any other environmental factors that prevent sleep.

Studies have found that although most adults have a basal sleep need of seven to eight hours a night, the answer gets a bit complicated when sleep debt is entered into the equation. For example, even if you get seven or eight hours of sleep a few nights in a row, your sleep debt from previous nights of sleep loss may cause you to feel sleepy and inattentive anyway. So the key is to get as much basal sleep and accumulate as little sleep debt as possible. Not easy in a world that never seems to sleep. But there are ways to get the most of whatever sleep time you can squeeze into your busy life.

One of the most important things you can do is to keep a consistent sleep/wake schedule, including on your days off. Even if you can only get six hours of sleep each night, make sure that you go to bed around the same time and wake up around the same time seven days a week. A lot of people stay up late on their days off because they don't have to wake up early for work. But this is a sure way to throw off your sleep cycle, making you feel tired when you have to start back on a different sleep/wake schedule on your first day back to work.

It's also a good idea to develop a relaxing bedtime routine, starting about an hour (or more) before you plan to go to bed. You shouldn't rush around or do exercise during that time. In fact, if you're going to exercise, you should try to do it at least a few hours before bedtime. You also shouldn't watch thrillers or read scary books right before bed. In other words, you shouldn't do anything to get your adrenaline pumping right before you go to bed because it takes time for your body to settle down.

Also try not to eat right before bed, and avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco several hours before bedtime. Caffeine and tobacco keep you awake, and alcohol interferes with REM sleep.

Because light inhibits sleep, you should keep your bedroom as dark as possible. You also should make the bedroom a place that you associate with sleep. You don't want to work on your computer or watch television in your bedroom. Both of these things have been found to hinder sleep. So use your computer and watch TV some place else so that your brain starts to associate your bedroom with sleep, not work. The basic idea is to do things that promote sleep and avoid things that interfere with sleep in the hours before bedtime.

If it was only that easy, right? Stress is a leading cause of sleep problems. Worries related to work, marriage, children, and any other stressful experiences that intrude in our day to day lives are going to interfere in our ability to get good sleep. That's why insomnia is one of the most common symptoms reported by high-achieving women.

Your mind races, new and exciting ideas may pop into your head at night when you're trying to settle into sleep, or worse, worries that you can't shake keep rearing their heads. All of these problems can make it not only difficult to fall asleep (most people's definition of insomnia), but also can wake you up in the middle of the night, cause you to wake up earlier than you need to, or disturb your sleep so that you don't feel rested when you wake up (all three of which are also forms of insomnia).

If insomnia is a persistent problem, you first should see a doctor to rule out any medical causes. If there are none (or even if there are), you can try deep breathing, imagery, or even counting sheep to help you sleep. But if after twenty or so minutes, you're still awake, it serves no purpose to lay there tossing and turning, watching the clock, frustrated that you can't get the sleep that you so desperately need. In fact, it's counterproductive.

So what's the solution? Most sleep experts recommend that you get out of bed, move to a different room, and do something calming, like reading or listening to relaxing music. Or you may want to do something incredibly boring, maybe something you've been putting off doing because it is so boring. But whatever you choose, it shouldn't be anything that stimulates your brain. Then, when you feel sleepy, go back to bed and try again.

The key is to treat sleep as importantly as anything else you do. In fact, you may find it helpful to actually write sleep into your schedule, the same way you schedule anything else that's important in your life.

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

The information in this post was taken from High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (2011, Prometheus Books).