We don’t have to tell you that life is stressful. Any type of challenge—whether it be from work, school, parenting, friendships, romantic relationships, or current events—can induce a state of stress, which is defined as the very way your brain and body respond to a demand. (1)

Add a pandemic on top of that, and stress levels in daily life skyrocket. In fact, according to a recent study (2) conducted by the American Psychological Association, the average reported stress level for U.S. adults related to the COVID/coronavirus pandemic is 5.9, compared to 4.9 in 2019, marking the first notable increase in average reported stress since the survey began back in 2007.

Below, we break down how exactly stress impacts sleep quality, in addition to tangible tips, strategies, and solutions to help you manage it.

Stress comes in three forms:

  1. Acute stress: Short-term and quickly passing
  2. Episodic stress: Related to a particular event
  3. Chronic stress: Generalized and ongoing

When your body reacts to acute or episodic psychological stress, there’s an increase in sympathetic nervous system activation. When this occurs, your autonomic nervous system (ANS) releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that circulate blood to vital organs and muscles. (3)

Your heart rate increases, your breath quickens, your muscles tense, beads of sweat form...sound familiar? It’s your “fight or flight” response, which evolved as a survival mechanism to enable people (we’re talkin’ hunter gatherers-era) to quickly react to life-threatening situations.

When this occurs before bedtime, it can run interference with sleep onset (aka the ability to fall asleep) and sleep maintenance (aka the ability to stay asleep). It’s so common that a National Sleep Foundation survey (4) found that 43% of people between the ages of 13 and 64 have reported lying awake at night and losing hours of sleep due to stress at least once in the past month alone.

Stress isn’t one-size-fits-all...and neither is sleep. Both manifest differently for different people. That’s why it’s important to first identify how stress is affecting your life and contributing to poor sleep. Do you find that you’re worried about the next day? Is your mind leading you in a million directions at once with random thoughts? Is there a singular stressor (i.e. life event, project/task, etc) that’s concerning you? What about general physical restlessness?

Once you take stock of what type of stress you’re struggling with, try out one of the strategies below in order to decrease your sympathetic activation and increase your chances of a good night’s sleep.

  • If you’re worried about the following day, try a “Closure of the Day” exercise
    What to do:

    Reflect on your day, make a to-do list for the following day, and address any thoughts that come up. This practice of setting aside time at the end of every day will help you essentially “close up shop” and prevent any free-floating thoughts from arising at bedtime or in the middle of the night.

    The science behind why this is beneficial:

    Come nighttime, the mind may start to kick around thoughts from the day that were not addressed. Completing this “closure of the day” reflection exercise will signal that you have already thought about these things and prevent your mind from running off in thought during dedicated sleep time. 

  • If your mind is leading you in a million different directions, try a mindfulness practice
    What to do:
    Get comfortable, sitting with your feet on the floor if possible. If you prefer, you can close your eyes. Otherwise, soften your gaze to something in the distance. Feel your body sitting in the chair and just notice how that feels for you. (pause) If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the moment. (pause) Now gently bring your attention and awareness to your breath, not changing it but simply noticing it. (pause) Notice what it feels like as you breathe in and notice what it feels like when you breathe back out. Again, not changing the pace of your breath, but just noticing. If your mind wanders, just bring it back. (pause) Now gently bring your attention to any sounds in your environment. Notice the hum of the A/C running or outside noises. (pause) If your mind wanders, just gently bring it back.

    The science behind why it’s beneficial:
    Mindfulness is a way to pay attention with purpose to the present moment which, in turn, helps you be more present in your everyday life. Guided exercises like this help calm racing thoughts and facilitate stress relief.

    READ MORE: 16 Science-Backed Things To Try If You Can't Sleep

  • If there’s a singular stressor that’s concerning you, carve out a designated time to worry about it that is outside of sleep time
    What to do:
    Schedule 15 - 20 minutes of dedicated “worry time” every day over the course of a week—you can even put it in your calendar. Just make sure it’s not close to bedtime. During that specific period of time, go ahead and write down everything that’s stressing you out. Don’t hold back, since getting thoughts down on paper is oftentimes more productive than keeping them bottled up in your mind. Once your time is up, go about your normal schedule. If you find yourself worrying later in the day outside of the designated window, remind yourself that now’s not the time. Easier said than done, we know. But if you stick with it (and be gentle with yourself), you can build the habit over time.

    The science behind why it’s beneficial:
    While it may sound counterintuitive, scheduling “worry time” can help you control the frequency and timing of your stress response. In official science-y terms, it’s called stimulus control training, (5) and it’s effective in freeing up the mind for other activities—in this case, sleep.

  • If you’re experiencing general physical restlessness, engage in progressive muscle relaxation techniques
    What to do:
    Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing a group of muscles as you breathe in for 4-10 seconds, then relaxing them as you breathe out (suddenly, not gradually). Just be sure you’re not tensing to the point of pain or uncomfortable cramping. Relax for 15-20 seconds before moving onto the next muscle group. (6)

    The science behind why it’s beneficial:
    Stress leads to muscle tension, which makes it difficult for the physical body to relax, which makes you even more stressed. And repeat. And repeat. By engaging in progressive muscle relaxation, you’ll calm your physical body and, as a result, your anxiety levels.

Considering supplements in addition to lifestyle change? Discover how ashwagandha can help reduce levels of stress and anxiety.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by stress, consider talking to your healthcare provider, who can address additional health problems and recommend mental health resources/specialists if needed.

For a tailored action plan that dives deeper into your sleep habits to address stress-related sleep disruptions, look no further than Proper's proprietary coaching program. Because remember, while supplements are great, optimal sleep wellness requires behavioral change.