If you’ve lived through a stressful life event — like a move, a job change, trauma, or a pandemic — you may have noticed it can mess with your sleep.
Stress, shift work, chronic medical conditions (like liver disease and arthritis), alcohol, caffeine, a hot or uncomfortable sleeping environment, and exposure to bright lights (like your smartphone or laptop) too close to bedtime can all disrupt a healthy sleep schedule, explains Phil Gehrman, PhD, an associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Stress is definitely one of the most common factors.”
Stress triggers a series of reactions in your brain and body to put you in a state of hyperarousal, or being “on alert.” Hormones like epinephrine and cortisol prompt your heart to beat faster and increase blood glucose.
This state of heightened awareness makes it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep at night, which can spur an unfortunate cycle: Sleep deprivation tends to make stress and anxiety worse, which then continue to contribute to sleep struggles, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
If work pressure or life stress has made it hard for you to fall asleep (or stay asleep) for a few days or weeks, you’re likely dealing with acute, or short-term insomnia, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). It’s common and happens to most of us at some point in our lives.
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Acute insomnia, however, can turn into chronic (long-term) insomnia if it continues for too long. If you struggle with sleep at least three nights a week for a minimum of three months, doctors would classify your insomnia as chronic. The problem is that you condition your body to get accustomed to those sleep struggles. So even if the initial stressor goes away, you still associate trying to sleep with being stressed (an association that can be tougher to break).
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