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Lack of Sleep and Stress -- a Vicious Cycle You Can Escape

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Sleep has important effects on health and well-being. Stress similarly has important effects on health and well-being. Thus, managing both sleep and stress is important in leaving a healthy, happy, productive life. Unfortunately, both sleep levels and stress levels have become problematic for many people in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Increasingly, research indicates links between sleep and stress (especially work stress) that highlights the potential for a vicious cycle. This can be potentially disastrous as people get caught up in an ongoing cycle of stress and exhaustion. However, it also highlights the possibility of managing stress by managing sleep, and vice versa. I discuss this in more detail in the paragraphs below.

Stress impacts sleep. Most of us have had the experience of lying in bed late at night, unable to sleep as stress loops invade our thoughts. A growing body of scientific research indicates that stress can have profound effects on sleep. Compared to those not experiencing insomnia, insomniacs have a greater number of stressful life events in the previous year. More recent research indicates that in particular it is the appraisal of stress that influences insomnia. In other words, even if you don't have a lot of events in your life that others would consider stressful, the degree to which you believe that events are stressful leads to insomnia.

U.S. Military personnel who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan (during the height of the U.S. conflicts in those areas) had sleep of lower quantity and worse quality while they were in the war zones than before the deployment, with stress as one of the reasons for this decline in sleep. Moreover, even upon returning from these war zones, sleep quality was lower. It is likely that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder played a role in this effect.

However, it is not only those exposed to extreme amounts of stress who experience difficulties sleeping. In some of my own research, anxiety produced from the common act of emotional labor (i.e., faking a smile while at work) was sufficient to lead to insomnia. Moreover, this played out on a daily basis across a broad variety of employees. For the same employee, on a day with low emotional labor demands, anxiety was low and insomnia was not an issue. But on a day with high emotional labor, anxiety was higher, producing a noticeable spike in insomnia.

(Lack of) Sleep influences stress. Perhaps less obviously, sleep can actually influence how much stress you experience. As noted above, it is how you perceive the stressfulness of your life events that influences your stress levels. A recent study built from this reasoning and examined the effect of sleep on stress. Participants took an exam that was mildly stressful. Compared to those experiencing a typical night of sleep, those in the sleep deprived condition experienced higher levels of stress. Outside of the laboratory context, other researchers have similarly shown that a lack of sleep leads to stress and psychological strain.

What can you do about it? The good news is that you don't have to be a helpless victim to the potential vicious cycle of stress and sleep. A large literature on stress indicates that there are ways to lower stress. Having some personal control over the situation helps create a buffer against stress. Social support is quite helpful in minimizing stress. Organizational wellness programs often include an element that focuses on stress management. And by lowering stress, not only can you experience a variety of health and well-being benefits, but you will also sleep better. Indeed, one study shows that stress reduction programs lead to improvements in sleep.

Moreover, you can help your stress levels by improving your sleep. As indicated in my recent Huffington Post blog entry , good sleep hygiene (specific behavioral patterns that promote good sleep patterns) can help you sleep better. And making sleep a higher priority will lead you to sleep rather than use that time for other activities. When you sleep better, life's difficulties will seem a little less stressful than they otherwise would. Thus, you can use sleep to help manage stress.

So if you find yourself experiencing a high amount of stress, take the non-obvious strategy of getting more sleep. And if you find yourself having difficulties falling asleep, fix your sleep patterns. Whatever you do, be careful not to get caught up in downward spiral into exhaustion and stress. That way lies madness.

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