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4 ways to handle stress-induced insomnia

Medically reviewed on August 1, 2022 by Karen Janson, M.D. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


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Are you lying in bed, scrolling for tips on how to fall asleep, and asking yourself, "Why can't I sleep?" You’re not the only one. Studies show that approximately a third of American adults suffer from poor sleep and experience insomnia on any given night. Acute insomnia is a sleep disorder that causes people to have difficulty falling or staying asleep, or to wake up too early, or feeling tired. [2]

Chronic insomnia disorder occurs three or more nights a week of sleep disturbance or if it lasts three months or more and cannot be explained by another health issue. [3]

Insomnia has a variety of triggers, but stress and anxiety disorder commonly cause sleepless nights. [2] In this article, we’ll explore the causes and symptoms of stress induced insomnia and how to get a more restful sleep.

What is stress induced insomnia?

Stress induced insomnia refers to chronic sleep difficulty, a striking example of the mind-body connection. When your body experiences stress throughout the day or at night, the nervous and endocrine systems produce adrenaline and cortisol, which can cause sleep disruption. [4]

These hormones may play a role in:

  • Elevating your energy levels
  • Increasing your heart rate and dilating blood vessels in your arms and legs
  • Raising your respiratory rate [4]

While these responses are programmed to help you during a stressful situation, such as running away from a charging lion, they can have adverse effects when stimulated at bedtime. [5]

This “fight or flight” response is far from relaxing and could disrupt your body’s natural circadian rhythm. This may make it more difficult to fall or stay asleep at night. [5]

What causes stress induced insomnia?

Stress induced insomnia is caused by mental stress and anxiety disorder that’s often a result of: [6]

  • Traumatic experience
  • Divorce
  • Death of a loved one
  • Job loss
  • Relationships
  • Concerns about work, health, or finances

Because sleeplessness can make daily life more difficult, insomnia often leads to more stress. And thus, an endless cycle of stress and sleepless nights may occur.

Symptoms of stress induced insomnia

Stress-induced insomnia is similar to acute insomnia in that people may experience difficulty falling asleep, feelings of tiredness, and a decrease in cognitive function. [6]

However, some stress symptoms may also accompany sleeplessness, such as:

  • Elevated heart rate or chest pain
  • Shallow breathing
  • Feelings of agitation or overwhelm
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Dry mouth
  • Clenched jaw

How to deal with stress induced insomnia

If you are experiencing stress, feeling fatigued, and having a hard time getting restful sleep, there are several steps you can take to ease your evening stress and improve your sleep quality.

1. Exercise during the day and avoid caffeine at night

Energy-burning workouts can help you rest better at night by increasing slow-wave—deep—sleep (non-REM sleep). The endorphins released during exercise may improve your mood, decrease your stress, and improve your energy levels. [7]

That said, it’s recommended that you exercise at least two hours before bed to give your body enough time to relax. [7]

Like exercise, caffeine is a stimulant that can wreak havoc on your sleep pattern. Avoid sipping on a cup of coffee too close to bedtime, as it can make it harder for your body to relax. [8] Instead, fill your evenings—and your cup—with water or herbal teas like chamomile and peppermint.

2. Put the screens away

Removing your phone, computer, and television from your bedroom can reduce your exposure to stress triggers and help your mind relax and improve sleep quality. The blue light from your phone may also make it harder for your body to produce melatonin—the hormone that plays a role in your body’s sleep-wake cycle. [9] You can learn how to fix your sleep schedule so that you can get the good night’s sleep.

3. Journal

Scribe rather than scroll during the nighttime hours. Journaling can help counteract the negative effects of stress that can often make falling asleep difficult. [5]

When it comes to journaling, there are several practices you can adopt to relax your mind, including:

  • Gratitude journaling – End the night by listing five things you are grateful for. Focusing on the positive things in your life can signal your body to relax. Gratitude is linked to dopamine and serotonin, the hormones associated with happiness. [10]
  • Expressive writing – Write for 10 to 20 minutes about your current stressors or about stressful events from your path that you would like to come to terms with. Studies show that expressive writing can have holistic health benefits, including lowering your stress levels. [11]

Don’t worry about the quality of your penmanship or your content when you journal. This is a therapeutic experience. It’s not intended to be shared with others. Rather, be as honest and expressive as possible to relieve your psychological stress.

4. Practice progressive muscle relaxation

Tense and release each muscle group in your body, from your head to your toes. [12] This can signal to your body that it’s time to let go of the stress responses and relax. Practice the following:

  • Step 1 – Fifteen minutes before you want to fall asleep, lay down. Give yourself room to stretch out, and let your limbs lay beside your body.
  • Step 2 – Tightly squeeze the muscles in your face and head. Hold the tension while you inhale. Inhale for eight counts, then let go of your squeezed muscles as you exhale.
  • Step 3 – Notice how relaxed your face feels. Now, move down your body. Repeat the process with your neck, shoulders, chest, and so on. By the time you reach your feet, you may have already fallen asleep.

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Fortunately, with the at-home Everlywell Sleep & Stress Test, you can track your cortisol, cortisone, and melatonin levels for melatonin deficiency to better understand what’s causing your sleep problem.

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5 reasons why you can't sleep

What is melatonin deficiency?

Tips on how to fix your sleep schedule


References

  1. Characteristics of insomnia in the United States: results of the 1991 National Sleep Foundation Survey. I. NIH. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  2. Sleep Disorders. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  3. What Is Insomnia? NIH. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  4. Stress effects on the body. American Psychological Association. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  5. On the Interactions of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis and Sleep: Normal HPA Axis Activity and Circadian Rhythm, Exemplary Sleep Disorders. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  6. Insomnia. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  7. Exercising for Better Sleep. Johns Hopkins Medicine. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  8. Caffeine Effects on the Central Nervous System and Behavioral Effects Associated with Caffeine Consumption. NIH. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  9. Why You Should Ditch Your Phone Before Bed. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  10. Use Gratitude to Counter Stress and Uncertainty. Harvard Business Review. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  11. Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Cambridge University Press. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  12. Relaxation techniques: Try these steps to reduce stress. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
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