“2020 has been a stressful year for people in the U.S. According to results from the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2020 survey1, general stress levels are significantly above average compared to years past. In fact, this year’s respondents reported the highest average stress levels since the survey was first launched in 2007–5.4 out of 10, an increase of 0.5 since last year. These figures can largely be attributed to COVID-19 and its implications on finances, parenting, and other aspects of daily life.” — Sleep Foundation
Since the last year has been so stressful for so many people, we wanted to explore why, how it can affect us—especially our sleep, and what you can do about it.
How stress occurs.
Stress evolved as a natural response to danger. “In humans, stress can cause the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to release hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones raise the heart rate to circulate blood to vital organs and muscles more efficiently, preparing the body to take immediate action if necessary.” Whilst stresses in everyday life have changed a lot throughout time—we’re no longer running from predators—they do still exist.
There are three main types of stress: acute, episodic, and chronic. Everyone has a different threshold and varied criteria for what they find stressful. Some examples could include:
• work challenges
• technical difficulties
• social interaction
• changes in routine
Whatever the situation, when we encounter stressful situations we still have those deeply ingrained fight or flight responses.
How stress affects the body.
Stress responses affect both the body and mind. It could manifest as:
• muscular tension
• unregulated temperature
• racing thoughts
• increased heart rate
The ‘HPA’ network regulates your bodily response and decides how much cortisol and adrenaline you need. These hormones put you on high alert and allow you to navigate situations, but additional cortisol coursing through you is the reason for the post-stress crash.  Whilst it’s normal to experience stress occasionally, prolonged stress and a heightened state of alert can deeply affect sleep regulation.
This can lead to chronic insomnia, which in turn makes us less able to deal with stress. This is a vicious cycle that we all want to avoid. So let’s talk about some healthy ways to mitigate stress so that we can continue to sleep better and stay stress-free.
Coping with stress.
In addition to visceral responses, society has collectively developed coping mechanisms as longer-term responses to stressors. When we think of ‘coping mechanisms’ we may think of things like overeating, drinking, and avoidance. However, there are healthy coping mechanisms too!
Some healthy ways to deal with stress are:
• creative outlets
• taking breaks
More than half of adults today report that they don’t get enough sleep—determined as 7-9 hours nightly by the CDC. Effective stress management is one step towards improving your sleep, but so is effective sleep hygiene. Some small changes in routine can impact both. For example—taking time away from digital devices at the end of your day can help you switch off from external factors that may be contributing to stress, and lessen blue light exposure that affects circadian rhythms. You could consider creating a sleep routine that detaches from stressors before it’s time to sleep.
What are some ways you take care of your stress? Let us know on Twitter and follow for more articles on ways to optimize your life for better sleep.