To Stress or To Sleep?

The demands on your time and abilities mount. Your stress levels build. You develop physical or emotional or behavioral symptoms (see my previous post Recognize Your Stress Levels). The stress and its symptoms can cause serious physical, emotional, and behavioral issues. You know you shouldn’t ignore your symptoms. But you’re stressed? How do you manage? Especially when every night you’re in a loop to stress or to sleep.

A woman sitting on the floor, hands over her face thinking to Stress or to sleep

The Basics

Our body has some basic needs. Food. Water. Exercise. And sleep. Today we’ll talk about sleep. Why do we need sleep? How much sleep do we need? And how can we attempt to get enough sleep when stressed?


We tend to think of sleep as a time when we “shut off” our brain and body. As a result, we treat sleep as the thing we do after we’ve done everything else. (Or is that just me?) But getting enough sleep every should be a priority. And it should be a higher priority when we’re stressed. 

The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.

Sydney J. Harris

Why We Need Sleep

Sleep allows our bodies to perform many important functions. The first is that sleep restores “brain plasticity.” You know that “foggy” feeling the morning after an all-nighter? Without enough sleep, our brain cannot adapt well. 

Our bodies take in information all day long. Those sights, sounds, touches, smells, and emotions and new information and events need processed and stored. During sleep, we solidify and consolidate our memories. If you are short on sleep, you will be short on memory.

During sleep our bodies repair tissues, grow muscles, synthesize hormones. A chronic lack of sleep can cause a worsening of depression, high blood pressure, migraines, and even seizures. And lack of sleep compromises our immune system. Our chances of illness and infection increase.  

“Sleep also plays a role in metabolism: Even one night of missed sleep can create a prediabetic state in an otherwise healthy person.”

In other words, to be healthy we need adequate sleep.

Our Bodies Crave Sleep

Do you ignore times when your body is telling you you’re hungry? I know I do. I’ll skip a meal. Our bodies cannot force us to eat. It can make us feel sick or weak and we eat to make that feeling go away. But it doesn’t force us to eat. 

I can skip on my sleep, too. But there comes a point when I can no longer keep my eyes open. I’ll fall asleep no matter what I’m trying to do. I’m sure it works that way for you, too. That’s because our bodies need sleep. Our bodies crave sleep. Our bodies will force us to sleep if it must.

How Much Is Enough Sleep?

The National Sleep Foundations conducted a two-year study and made these recommendations by age. 

Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours each day 

Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours 

Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours 

Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours 

School-age children (6-13): 9-11 hours 

Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours 

Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours

Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours

Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours 

National Sleep Foundation

How to Get Enough Sleep When Stressed

Getting to sleep when you’re stressed isn’t easy. Set yourself up for success. Good sleep habits (also known as sleep hygiene) before stressful events will help you get the sleep you need. Don’t have good sleep habits? Then practice good sleep hygiene now. 

1. Make your bedroom a restful place. 

  • Quiet (you may need a white noise generator or ear plugs)
  • Dark (blackout curtains or a sleep mask)
  • Cool room temperature 
  • Fresh air, free of allergens (an open window or a fan)
  • Clean bedroom (at least without clutter and distractions)
  • Comfortable mattress and pillow

2. Develop a sleep routine.

Consistency of your bedtime routine helps signal your brain and body to prepare for sleep. 

  • Go to bed at the same time every night. 
  • Make certain your bedtime allows for enough hours of sleep before you must get up. 
  • Do the same thing(s) before bedtime every night. (A sleep routine)

3. Put away the electronic devices one or more hours prior

You may not be able to turn off your phone, but stop looking at the screen–any screen. There’s plenty of research that says screen time will decrease sleep and quality of sleep.

4. Practice relaxation for thirty minutes before bedtime.

  • Read or listen to relaxing music 
  • Take a hot bath or shower.
  • Relax your muscles. Focus on each part of your body. Clench and release your muscles. Breath out the tension and consciously think about relaxing. Start with your face. Once you feel your face relax, focus on your neck, and down your body– upper back, arms, hands, lower back, buttocks, upper legs, lower legs, and feet. You may fall asleep before you get all the way to your feet. 

5. Visualization

Imagine yourself going through your sleep routine, getting into bed, falling asleep, having a restful night. Research shows that your brain responds to visualization as if it actually happens. Repeated visualizations of good sleep practices will help you get a good night’s sleep.

6. Count Sheep.

Or count backwards. Or count by threes. What and how you count isn’t important. What’s important is your focus. Keep your focus on the numbers. That will keep your worries at bay and help you relax.

7. Be mindful.

Deep breathing, meditation, or yoga may boost your sleep time and quality.

8. Journal

Write about what you’d like to dream about, or count your blessings, or list things you for which you are grateful.

9. Schedule worrying time.

  • If worries keep you awake, schedule time for your worries. Set aside fifteen to thirty minutes in every morning or afternoon. Use a timer to keep to your time limit. 
  • Journal or just think about your worries. 
  • List your worries and what you might do to resolve them 
  • List the things you want to accomplish for the next day. 

You schedule a time and a time limit to help your brain understand that you take your worries seriously and can let go of those worries until your next appointment with worry.

Managing Stress Not One-and-Done

Unfortunately, managing stress is not a one-and-done process. What works for me may not work for you and vice versa. What works for you this day may not work the next. Try a little of everything until you find what works. Don’t get caught between to stress or to sleep. Give yourself every opportunity to get enough sleep. And stay tuned for next week’s discussion of how diet and exercise affect stress management. 

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