Stress and Insomnia: How Stress Affects Sleep

Medically reviewed by
 Dr. Nayantara Santhi

Dr. Nayantara Santhi

Dr. Nayantara Santhi holds an academic position at Northumbria University. After completing her Ph.D. at Northeastern University (Boston, MA), she joined the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School as a post-doctoral fellow to research how sleep and circadian rhythmicity influence our cognitive functioning.

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Last Updated On December 12th, 2023
Stress and Insomnia: How Stress Affects Sleep

Key Takeaways

  • Sleep is Vital: Sleep is crucial for physical and mental well-being, and inadequate sleep can lead to various health problems, including moodiness, decreased productivity, and increased risk of serious illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.
  • Stress-Insomnia Cycle: Stress and insomnia are closely linked. Stress can cause insomnia, and the lack of sleep can, in turn, contribute to increased stress levels. This creates a cycle that can be challenging to break.
  • Managing Stress for Better Sleep: It’s essential to identify and manage sources of stress, engage in relaxation techniques, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and establish good sleep habits. Seeking professional help, such as therapy or hypnotherapy, can also be beneficial for managing both stress and insomnia.

You’re lying awake, long past bedtime. Your mind began racing as soon as you laid down, and now you can’t sleep. Worse, you can’t stop thinking about how you can’t sleep. As the minutes and hours drag on, this should make you more tired, but it seems to only fuel your mind’s fire.

You’ve probably been there at one point or another, with stress and anxiety taking over where sleep should be in charge. In fact, managing stress is frequently touted as one of the top tips for getting better sleep.

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But the relationship between sleep and stress is complex; stress causes a lack of sleep, particularly insomnia, and a lack of sleep, in turn, contributes to stress. This article explores the relationship between stress and insomnia, offering practical ways to improve both.

Lack of Sleep: A Public Health Crisis

In 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control called sleep deprivation a public health epidemic due to its prevalence and consequences.

Adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night on average, and children typically require much more. However, the American Sleep Association reports that more than 35% of American adults aren’t getting enough.

Sleep is often the first thing to go when our work, family, and social obligations start to pile up. But this sleep deficit can profoundly impact our days and our lives, even affecting those around us.

Sleep is an essential part of the brain and body’s repair and renewal processes, helping fix the day’s damage and prepare us for the next day. In sleep, our nervous system also gets a needed moment of rest, as our heart and blood vessels relax, and our immune system gets a boost from the release of essential cells and proteins. For kids, good sleep plays a big part in growth and development.

When we don’t get enough sleep to allow these processes to be effective, we are likely to feel the effects. Common side effects of a lack of sleep include:

  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating or retaining new information
  • Decrease in productivity at work or school
  • Increased risk of errors and accidents due to impaired focus and slower reaction times from sleep deprivation
  • Lowered immune response, increasing the risk of illness

When insufficient sleep becomes chronic or prolonged, it also increases the risk of many serious health concerns, including but not limited to:

  • Obesity Verified Source Wiley Multinational publishing company specializing in academic and instructional materials. View source
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source
  • Stroke Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source
  • Dementia Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source

Many studies Verified Source ScienceDirect One of the largest hubs for research studies and has published over 12 million different trusted resources. View source have examined Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source  the impact Verified Source ScienceDirect One of the largest hubs for research studies and has published over 12 million different trusted resources. View source  of “sleep extension” or the intentional lengthening of sleep periods. While their subjects and focus vary, the results all point in the same direction: more sleep means better health, happiness, functioning, and safety.

Naturally, too much sleep is also not good, so be careful not to exceed the sleep duration that a typical adult needs. For most adults, oversleeping is sleeping more than 9 hours regularly, though there is a small portion of adults who are “long sleepers” and need more than 9 hours of sleep a night to feel fully refreshed and are otherwise healthy.

What Is Stress?

In its most basic form, stress Verified Source Harvard Health Blog run by Harvard Medical School offering in-depth guides to better health and articles on medical breakthroughs. View source is a good thing. Stress is a natural response to danger and high-stakes situations. It’s part of the fight-or-flight instinct vital to human survival, and while the source of our stress has evolved since the early days of human existence, the science behind it has not.

The brain and the nervous system regulate the stress response. The sympathetic nervous system helps us “go” in response to a trigger, while the parasympathetic nervous system offers a stop when the danger passes.

When we perceive something stressful (a wild animal, a speeding car, a last-minute meeting with the boss), the amygdala, which helps to process emotions, is the first to take notice. It sends an alert to the hypothalamus, which then works to manage the body’s response.

A surge of adrenaline, also called epinephrine, quickly begins to pump through the body. Our heart beats faster, our breathing is rapid, and our senses sharpen. Emergency energy stores are released, and they flow to every part of our body, fueling our response.

After that first wave of adrenaline, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis kicks into gear. Cortisol is released to keep the body in its hyped-up state of awareness as long as needed.

There are three types of stress:

  • Acute: A short-term stress event, often in response to a trigger and involving a sense of panic.
  • Episodic: Recurring episodes of acute stress events.
  • Chronic: Perpetual stress that keeps the body in an elevated state for an extended period.

Momentary, acute stress is perfectly normal and helpful. It empowers us to act quickly when the situation calls for it, sometimes before fully understanding what’s happening. Our bodies are not equipped to endure prolonged stress, however. Long-term stress is harmful, impacting every one of our internal systems Verified Source American Psychological Association (APA) Represents thousands of professional neurologists and neuroscientists. View source in a unique way.


As noted above, the sympathetic nervous system drives the body and mind during stressful moments. The parasympathetic nervous system deescalates things, bringing us back down to normal. The parasympathetic system can never quite do its job with prolonged stress, overloading the nerves.


Acute stress raises our heart rate, strengthens the heart’s contractions, and increases blood pressure. Chronic stress prolongs these escalations, overloading the system and increasing the risk for long-term problems such as inflammation, hypertension, heart attack, and stroke.


The stomach and the brain are deeply connected, which is why we feel like our stomach is in knots when we’re nervous. Stress interferes with communication that goes between the brain and belly, impacting our mood and gut health. It can result in an increase or decrease in appetite, make us more prone to heartburn, cause esophageal spasms, increase feelings of nausea, bloating, and other discomforts, and even weaken the intestinal barrier.


During stressful moments, our muscles tense. With chronic stress, that tension never entirely goes away. This can result in migraine headaches and pain in the lower back, shoulders, and arms.


Long-term stress can negatively impact the functioning of the reproductive system in both men and women. Stress can affect fertility, increase the risk of disease, and, for women, worsen the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause.


In stressful moments, the breath becomes fast and shallow. For those with preexisting breathing conditions like asthma, this rapid breathing can make problems worse. Acute stress can also trigger asthma attacks, hyperventilation, or even panic attacks in some people.

See also:

The Cycle of Stress and Insomnia

The experience of stress isn’t just physical, of course. It’s also emotional and mental. With stress often comes rapid, anxious thoughts – especially at night. When the body and mind should be settling into sleep, the mind instead is racing, and the body can’t help but come along. This combination of mental and physical factors can give a person too much anxious energy at night, making it hard to relax and drift off.

The inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or sleep until the appropriate time is called insomnia. Insomnia is a common sleep condition, affecting a large percentage of adults. In a French study Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source involving more than 12,000 adults, 57% of subjects reported difficulty getting to sleep in the previous month.

The researchers determined that 19% met the official criteria for insomnia, Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source which stipulates that daytime functioning is impacted, with 9% experiencing severe insomnia. The three points of criteria are:

  • Persistent sleep difficulty
  • Adequate sleep opportunity
  • Associated daytime dysfunction

Insomnia happens to everyone occasionally, but it typically resolves on its own, even within a night or two. When insomnia occurs at least three times a week for at least three months, it’s considered chronic or, in other terms, insomnia disorder rather than an insomnia event.

Stress is a significant factor Verified Source Mayo Clinic Ranked #1 hospital by U.S. News & World Report and one of the most trusted medical institutions in the world. The staff is committed to integrated patient care, education, and research. View source  in the experience of insomnia. In the 2020 Stress in America survey discussed earlier in this article, 31% of Gen Z adults reported that stress negatively impacted their sleep.

Stress may be due to problems at work or home, divorce or other family challenges, the death of a loved one and its related grief, a major illness or injury, big life changes, financial strain. Anything that causes a disrupted or altered sleep schedule can also contribute to insomnia.

Unfortunately, insomnia and stress often happen in a cycle: stress causes insomnia, and insomnia causes stress. Persistent insomnia can cause anxiety around sleep, which raises the stress hormones that make it difficult to sleep.

Insomnia frequently leads to sleep deprivation, the adverse effects of which can cause stress and other problems in day-to-day life. These include excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue, irritability, struggling to pay attention, making more errors than usual, and more.

The Impact of the Stress Hormone Cortisol on Sleep

Cortisol is produced naturally throughout the day, even in the absence of stress. Our cortisol levels are highest in the morning and gradually decrease throughout the day as we get closer to bedtime.

In moments of acute stress, elevated cortisol levels make us hyper-alert, allowing us to assess and manage the situation rapidly. When you’re trying to sleep, however, the last thing you want to be is alert.

Stress: Also a Public Health Crisis

In their Stress in America 2020 report Verified Source American Psychological Association (APA) Collaborative organization for psychologists across the country. View source , the American Psychological Association called the country’s current stress levels a “national mental health crisis” with the potential for long-reaching impacts.

The year 2020 was particularly bad for our collective psyche. Unsurprisingly, the report cites the COVID-19 pandemic as the primary culprit: 80% of adults described it as a major source of stress, and 67% of adults reported an increase in stress as a result.

The report also notes that the pandemic, while overwhelming, didn’t exist on its own. The existing stress factors of previous years, such as health care and climate change, remained largely intact. Pandemic stress came on top of these stressors.

This stress has most severely impacted young adults, the APA noted. They expressed high levels of fatigue, loneliness, unhappiness, restlessness, neglected health, and, most relevant to the current conversation, poor sleep.

Generational Impacts of Stress and Sleep

The American Psychological Association’s report from 2020 highlights the generational differences in the experience of stress and sleep, noting that Generation Z and Millennials are more stressed on average. In 2013, the same report found that Millenials and Gen X, Verified Source American Psychological Association (APA) Collaborative organization for psychologists across the country. View source then the youngest generations in adulthood, were more sleep-deprived than other generations.

In the 2013 report, one-third of the surveyed Millennials attributed their lack of sleep to an imbalance of time and demands on that time. The most recent report cites uncertainty about the future as one of Gen Z’s potential triggers. However, the exact reasons for this correlation between age, stress, and sleep are not clear.

How Good Sleep Reduces Stress

Even though times of stress are some of the most challenging times to get good sleep, they’re some of the most important. Even one night of good sleep can have a profound impact on focus, mood, and energy levels, improving our decision-making abilities, our capacity for new information, and more.

How to Reduce Stress and Improve Sleep

With sleep and stress so intertwined, improving one will inevitably make improvements on the other. Here are some tips for managing your stress and sleep.

Identify What’s Causing You Stress

Knowing the source of your stress can help you identify the right way to manage it. Consider each aspect of your life, identifying triggers and opportunities to reduce stress in your life.

Sometimes the stressor may be easily removed from your life, other times it’s a more persistent presence, such as the effect of chronic pain on stress. If need be, speak with an appropriate medical specialist to ease the stress you feel during the day.

Stop Stress When It Starts

In addition to understanding what’s causing you stress, identifying the signs of stress in yourself can help you address it when it comes up, rather than waiting until it becomes a problem. Think about times when you felt stressed, examining what you felt in your body and mind.

When you’re stressed, you may experience various physical effects in the moment. These can include increased heart rate, rapid breathing, tense muscles, elevated blood pressure, and a heightened sense of alertness. You might also feel sweaty, experience digestive issues, or feel a sense of restlessness or agitation. These physical manifestations of stress are the body’s natural response to perceived threats or challenges.

Engage in Relaxing Activities

Find ways to relax and relieve stress, such as:

Get Plenty of Exercise

Physical activity effectively reduces symptoms of stress and improves insomnia, making it a powerful antidote to both issues. Prioritize exercise for sleep to improve your stress, your sleep quality, and your overall health too.

Even just taking a simple walk a nature can have benefits as you take in the sights and sounds, a practice known as “forest bathing.” Taking joy from the outdoors rather than just focusing on working out can make a significant dent in stress.

Cultivate Good Sleep Habits

Improving your sleep environment with a new pillow or mattress, managing exposure to light, keeping to a consistent bedtime, and establishing daily routines can all help to improve your overall sleep quality.

See also:

Try Therapy

While there’s a lot we can do to manage stress and sleep on our own, sometimes it helps to enlist a professional. In addition to general therapy options, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) specifically works to address sleep issues.

There’s also hypnotherapy or sleep hypnosis, which has had some studied success in easing insomnia. By inducing a state of deep relaxation and accessing the subconscious mind, hypnotherapy can help individuals identify and address the underlying sources of stress that disrupt their sleep.

Through guided imagery, positive suggestions, and coping techniques, hypnotherapy aims to reduce stress levels, promote relaxation, and develop healthier patterns of thinking and behavior. By addressing stress through hypnotherapy, individuals can experience improved sleep quality and better manage their insomnia symptoms.

Get Out of Bed

Experts agree that lying in bed thinking about not sleeping makes the issue worse. Get up and do something relaxing until you’re sleepy, then return to bed.

Make Lifestyle Changes

Small changes like eating a healthy diet, reducing caffeine, and getting the support of friends and family can have a significant effect on stress and sleep. It’s also important to set boundaries around work and personal life. Working too late or checking email before bedtime not only adds to stress but exposes us to bright lights that can impede sleep.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does stress cause insomnia?

Stressful events can be a driving factor behind sudden cases of insomnia. However, stress is not the only potential cause of insomnia. If your insomnia lasts more than a week, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor or a sleep specialist to determine if the cause is stress-related or if there’s an underlying disorder.

How many hours do insomniacs sleep?

Patients with insomnia typically underestimate how much sleep they’re actually getting. Many get around six hours of sleep a night. As a reminder, the CDC advises adults get around 7 to 9 hours of sleep. Taking steps to improve sleep hygiene can help a person with insomnia grab a few more hours of much needed sleep.

Is insomnia a mental illness?

No, insomnia is not considered a mental illness. However, doctors may work with insomnia patients to determine if there’s an underlying mental condition. Anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be linked to insomnia.

What are the 3 types of insomnia?

The three types of insomnia are transient insomnia, acute insomnia, and chronic insomnia. Transient insomnia lasts less than a week and is typically linked to recent stressors. Acute insomnia lasts longer than transient insomnia but is still temporary, lasting less than three months and often caused by a significant and stressful event, like the death of a loved one.

Acute insomnia typically clears up on its own, but it can also develop into chronic insomnia if left unmanaged. Chronic insomnia can be due to stress, but it can also result from poor sleep hygiene, mental health disorders, sleep disorders, physical or neurological problems, and medications.

Can insomnia go away on its own?

It is possible for transient insomnia or acute insomnia to clear up on their own, but that is typically because the underlying stressors have been addressed. However, the effects of insomnia can still have long-term consequences, so it’s best to try and correct your sleep schedule as soon as possible. Your doctor may have suggestions on how to do so, or they may refer you to a sleep specialist.

The Bottom Line

Stress and poor sleep can quickly catch us in a vicious cycle: stress contributes to insomnia, and insomnia contributes to stress. By taking action to reduce your stress levels, you can help to manage insomnia and get a good night’s rest, with better days to follow.

About the author

Carolyn Rousch is a freelance lifestyle writer and hobby photographer based in Tucson, Arizona. With a master's degree in data analytics from Texas A&M University, Carolyn brings a unique perspective to her writing. Her passion for helping people embrace their best lives drives her interest in sleep and well-being. Carolyn's expertise on sleep paralysis, as showcased in her article "Everything You Need to Know About Sleep Paralysis," reflects her dedication to delivering valuable and reliable information.

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