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Does sleep deprivation induce stress, or is it the reverse?

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It's chicken and egg – but whether it's stress that's giving you sleepless nights, or insomnia that's making you stressed, it's time to break the cycle.

According to one survey, more than 63 per cent of us are unhappy with the amount of sleep we get - and 74 per cent actively worry about not getting enough.1

Is it stress or insomnia?

Often, people who are under constant or severe stress will develop insomnia because it's difficult for them to switch off and relax. You might find yourself waking early, too.

However, not everyone who has problems sleeping is under stress; noise, pain, shift work, menopausal night sweats, light pollution or even an uncomfortable bed can all affect sleep quality and quantity. Sleep problems can also be a side effect of various medications.

To find out if your insomnia is stress-related, think about when it started. If it comes and goes, and coincides with stressful periods (as opposed to being a persistent problem), you have your answer.2

What is it doing to you?

Research shows that just one night of sleeplessness can affect our performance on cognitive tasks.3 Studies have also shown that being sleep-deprived makes us less empathetic towards others4 and less able to regulate our negative emotions.5

In a US study, which allowed participants just four to five hours sleep a night over seven days, people reported feeling more stressed, angrier, and mentally exhausted by the end of the week. As soon as they went back to getting a normal amount of sleep, their mood lifted dramatically.6 Experts suggest dipping below six hours a night puts you at risk.7

If we become chronically sleep-deprived, these negative effects on our psychological health appear to be cumulative, to the extent that regularly suffering from a lack of sleep puts us at greater risk of mood disorders like depression and anxiety.8 One theory is that being constantly deprived of sleep over time causes our brain to become rewired, making us more vulnerable to mental health problems.9, 10

Are there links between stress, insomnia and depression?

The statistics and research say yes. A 2015 study showed the onset of depression is linked to stress exposure.11 Furthermore, between 60 and 90 per cent of people with depression are estimated to suffer with insomnia.12

7 ways to break the cycle

Here are some ideas to help you break the vicious cycle of sleep problems and stress:

  1. Manage your stress levels. Try deep breathing, yoga, meditation and mindfulness exercises and/or talking therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).13 Importantly, learn to say no when you are overloaded.
  2. Tackle any worries. If you are worrying about paying the bills or arguing with your partner, face up to the issues and get some help from the Citizen's Advice Bureau or Relate.
  3. Get treatment for depression. See your GP and talk about your feelings. They may recommend counselling (which can be particularly helpful if you are going through a difficult period, such as a bereavement or divorce) or a course of anti-depressants.
  4. Establish a sleep routine. Try going to bed and getting up at the same time daily. Experts also recommend creating a wind-down routine, such as taking a bath, sipping chamomile tea and not using any technology for an hour before bed.
  5. Reserve your bedroom for sleep. Help your brain associate your bedroom with sleep – not work – by avoiding talking on the phone, using your laptop or watching television in your bedroom.13
  6. Check your diet. What we eat (and when) impacts on the quality of our sleep.14 Foods containing an amino acid called tryptophan (think turkey, chicken and dairy products15) and the sleep-hormone melatonin (found in small amounts in cherries, bananas and grapes) may help. A diet low in magnesium has also been linked to insomnia, so eat more magnesium-rich foods such as leafy green vegetables.16
  7. Avoid too much caffeine and alcohol. They are both stimulants and will keep you awake.

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1 Dreams,(2016), The 2016 UK Sleep Survey Results
2 Neil B. Kavey, Stress and Insomnia, National Sleep Foundation.
3 Linde,L. Bergström,M. (1992),The effect of one night without sleep on problem-solving and immediate recall, Psychological Research, 54(2):127-36.
4 Guadagni,V. Burles,F. Ferrara,M. Iaria,G. (2014), The effects of sleep deprivation on emotional empathy, The Journal of Sleep Research, Empathy and sleep.
5 Mauss,I. Troy,A. LeBourgoise,K. (2013), Poorer sleep quality is associated with lower emotion-regulation ability in a laboratory paradigm, Journal of Cognition and Emotion, Issue 3.
6 Dinges,DF. Pack,F. Williams,K. Gillen,KA. Powell, JW. Ott, GE. Aptowicz, C. Pack, AI. (1997), Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night. Sleep, Apr;20(4):267-77.
7 NHS,(2018), Why Lack of Sleep is Bad for Your Health, Sleep and Tiredness
8 NHS,(2018), Why Lack of Sleep in Bad for You, Sleep and Tiredness
9 Anwar,Y. (Press Release: 22nd October 2007), Sleep loss linked to psychiatric disorders, UC Berkley News.
10, (2016), How to Cope with Sleep Problems. Mind; for better mental health.
11 Vargas,I. Friedman,P. Drake,C. (2015), Vulnerability to Stress-Related Sleep Disturbance and Insomnia: Investigating the Link with Comorbid Depressive Symptoms, Trans Issues Psychological Science, 1(1): 57–66.
12 Drake,C. PhD Pillai,V. PhD Roth,T, (2014), Stress and Sleep Reactivity: A Prospective Investigation of the Stress-Diathesis Model of Insomnia, Sleep, 37(8): 1295-1304.
13, Learn to Leave Stress Behind at Bedtime, National Sleep Foundation
14 Peuhkuri, Katri & Jaatinen, Nora & Korpela, Riitta. (2012). Diet Promotes Sleep Duration and Quality, Nutrition Research, 32(5):309-19.
15 MS, RD, Kirkpatrick,K. (2014), Foods that Help you Sleep, Cleveland Clinic. Health Essentials.
16 Abbasi,B. Kimiagar,M. Sadeghniiat,M. Shirazi,M. Hedayati,M. Rashidkhani,R. (2012), The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial, Journal of Residential Medical Science,7(12): 1161-1169.