Sleep and Stress

During the downhill ski competition at the 2006 winter Olympics, American Lindsey Kildow took a crushing fall that landed her in the hospital for a day. Her competitor Michaela Dorfmeister of Austria was in a pitched battle for the first gold medal of her life. The night before the decisive downhill race, both women slept fitfully, the New York Times reported in its Olympic coverage.

Kildow had a nightmare that she was flying through the air out of control. Dorfmeister had a dream about the 1998 race, when the gold medal proved elusive. Dorfmeister would go on the next day to win the gold, while Kildow, skiing in extreme pain, would tie for eighth place. Both had needed the best sleep of their lives. Instead they got just about the worst.

Whether you’re excited about a big event or worried about a big challenge, a good night’s sleep is often the first casualty of stress.

From a biological perspective, it’s hardly surprising that stress can ruin sleep. When you’re under stress, your brain produces adrenaline and other hormones that put your body on full alert. Your pulse quickens, your blood pressure rises, and your mind races. This response helped keep us alive back in the days when we had to compete with lions and hyenas. But when you’re fretting about work, finances or relationships, stress hormones can make it hard to relax or sleep soundly through the night.

A 2004 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that stress can be especially disruptive to deep sleep. Researchers measured the heart rates of college students who spent the night in a sleep lab. Half of the students were told that they would have to give a 15-minute speech in the morning. The other half had a normal morning ahead of them. The students who dreaded the upcoming speech enjoyed relatively little deep sleep. They also showed heart rate patterns similar to those seen in people who suffer from chronic insomnia.

Lingering stress can certainly cause insomnia in the real world, too. And because insomnia itself can be emotionally painful, you can easily fall into a vicious cycle of sleeplessness and stress. A study of 772 men and women of all ages published in the journal Sleep found that people who suffered from insomnia were 17 times more likely than sound sleepers to have anxiety problems. In this study — and in real life — it’s hard to know what came first: the frayed nerves or the sleepless nights.

No matter how much stress you face during the day, you may be able to get extra Z’s by simply taking a healthier approach to bedtime. A report from the National Sleep Foundation recommends “winding down” for an hour or two before bed — no catching up on work, no phone calls. Also, you should reserve your bedroom for sleep or sex, not “waking” activities such as working or watching TV. Don’t go to bed unless you actually feel tired. And if you find yourself wide awake between the sheets, get up and do something else until you feel sleepy again.

If you have high-pressure days followed by restless nights, anything that alleviates the stress in your life could double as a sleep aid. You may need to find a way to avoid stressful situations, a tactic that can be as simple as finding a better commute or as drastic as finding a new job. Alternatively, you may need a new set of stress-busting techniques, such as making lists of things you need to do — or even lists of things you can’t change. You may sleep more soundly once you stop trying to be superhuman or worrying about things that are out of your control. Proven stress relievers such as regular exercise, yoga, meditation, or relaxation techniques may also improve your sleep.

Even if you reach a state of Zen-like relaxation, sleep may not come easily. Many things other than stress can cause insomnia, including prescription drugs, depression, or even just poor sleep habits. If you still can’t get enough sleep, ask your doctor for advice.

No matter what you do to calm your nerves and improve your sleep, you can still expect to toss and turn before a big event. And that’s okay. As Dorfmeister can attest, stressful sleep can be a prelude to a gold-medal day. For her sake, though, it’s probably a good thing the Olympics only come around once every four years. Even a champion needs her rest.


National Sleep Foundation. Sleep and stress.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Facts about insomnia.

Hall M et al. Acute stress affects heart rate variability during sleep. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2004. 66: 56-62.

American Academy of Family Physicians. Stress: how to cope better with life’s challenges. July 2005.

National Mental Health Association. Stress: Coping with everyday problems. 2006.

Taylor DJ et al. Epidemiology of insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Sleep. November 1, 2005. 28(11): 1457-1464.

New York Times. After a Sleepless Night, Dorfmeister Takes Gold and Kildow Ties for 8th. February 16, 2006.

Cleveland Clinic. Sleep Medicine: Insomnia. March 3, 2005.

© HealthDay

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