Sometimes those everyday stresses can start to mount up. The more stressed we are, the harder it is to sleep. The more our sleep is disrupted in some way, the bigger the negative effect it has on our mood. We become even more stressed and even less likely to sleep. It is all a bit of a vicious circle.
What happens during a normal night’s sleep?
When our brain is tuned in to the natural flow of our circadian rhythms, we find everything synchronizes perfectly. Our body and mind are attuned, and hormones work in balance. The circadian rhythms govern our sleep/wake cycle. So when the light starts to fade, we begin to produce a hormone called melatonin. It gently prepares us for sleep by making us drowsy. We start to unwind and relax and eventually drop off. Towards the end of the night we start to produce another hormone, cortisol. This hormone provides a burst of energy. It makes us feel alert and hungry. When the sun starts to rise, we are ready to start the day.
Our sleep cycles
Over the course of a night we experience between four to six sleep cycles lasting about 90 minutes in length. Each cycle has different stages within it. It starts with a period of light sleep, followed by deep sleep and finally rapid eye movement or REM sleep. The amount of time we spend in each stage of sleep varies. During our first sleep cycles we tend to have more deep sleep but more REM in the later ones.
What happens during each stage of sleep?
During light sleep we are not fully awake and not yet fully asleep. We are aware enough of our surroundings that if needed to, we would be able to respond to something that required our attention. This stage is really about preparing us for deep sleep.
Deep sleep is when the body takes precedence. The mind slows right down. Growth hormones are produced during deep sleep and the damaged cells in the body are repaired or replaced.
It is during REM sleep that our brain takes precedence. The body is at its most relaxed, but our mind is most active. This is the stage of sleep where we tend to do most of our dreaming. As there is more REM during the second half of the night there is a concentration of dreaming before we wake. Dreaming is a really important part of sleep. It is when our brain takes the days memories from their holding bay; in particular, those niggling events that have stayed on our mind. It evaluates them, prunes away any irrelevant information and removes it. It then stores what might be helpful for future use, in long term storage, where it can all be accessed far more easily. This is how memories are formed.
Our brain also uses dream time to process our emotional responses to the day’s events. Our dreams replay these events, giving us an opportunity to try out and rehearse different emotional responses, so that if we were faced with this situation again, we would already be prepared for it. This is how dreaming helps us regulate our emotional responses during the day.
REM is also the time when we produce new brain cells and when toxins are washed away from the brain by cerebral fluid.
The stress response
When we become stressed or face a challenge, our body switches into a more heightened mode. This reaction is governed by our primitive brain and is an ancient response that evolved as a survival mechanism. It helps us react quickly to threat and defend against danger and predators. In the days of early man, we had to contend with many actual life-threatening situations and without this response we never would have made it as a human race.
How does the stress response work?
The amygdala, which can be found in our original primitive brain, is always judging any situation for potential threat. It does this by processing the sensory information coming into the brain via the thalamus. It also scours the hippocampus for stored memories to see what we did and how we responded the last time we faced something similar. Once the brain has decided there is a threat, a distress signal is sent to the hypothalamus (a bit like the brain’s chemist) and signals are sent via nerves to the adrenal glands that sit on the top of our kidneys. Here the stress hormone adrenaline is produced. Adrenaline causes a biological response to help fight the threat or flee from it. Blood pressure increases, making your heart beat harder and faster so that your muscles get a good supply of blood. Glucose and fats are released by the liver into the blood, providing extra energy to keep the muscles working well. Breathing speeds up. Small airways are opened in the lungs so we can take in more oxygen. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain which increases our alertness and senses become sharper and the mind more vigilant. The thinking part of the brain is de-activated. If you were a primitive man under threat from let’s say a wild animal, standing around thinking about the threat could have cost you your life. Any non-essential processes that do not help with survival are restrained in an effort to send energy where it is needed most.
If the amygdala still perceives a threat after the initial burst of adrenaline, it sends a further series of signals which end up at the adrenal glands. This time to produce cortisol. Cortisol acts like a gas peddle keeping the body revved up and alert until the threat is over at which point cortisol levels fall.
Now as modern man we have different stresses to our ancient forbears, money worries, deadlines, job losses, divorce etc. These stresses are not life threatening but the primitive part of our brain still reacts as if they were. Even thinking about stressful memories from the past or imagining negative future ones can trigger the exact same response. As these modern stressors tend to be longer term, this keeps our stress response activated for longer than is helpful. We keep churning out the cortisol and this can play havoc with our ability to sleep well as well as having a negative effect on our mental and physical health.
How does cortisol affect sleep?
When we are anxious, our amygdala becomes hyper-alert, constantly on the lookout for threats and danger. Worries and fears race through the mind building up over the day and into the night and feeding off each other. Generally, cortisol production drops off as night approaches, but if our mind is still racing, the cortisol keeps on flowing. The overload of energy that the cortisol brings, keeps the mind so active and restless we cannot relax and drift off to sleep. So, we lay awake with our mind running riot.
When we do manage to sleep it is often not of a good quality. The mind needs to be relaxed and calm for deep sleep. Missing out on some of that slow wave repair time means that it is harder for the body to heal itself. Instead we spend more time in light sleep where we can be more easily disturbed. REM sleep often increases too, due to an influx of emotional input from the day to work through and process. This disrupted sleep can leave us feeling very tired during the day. To help us keep awake we produce even more cortisol. The amygdala remains on alert.
Many sufferers of anxiety often find themselves waking at 3am or 4am. When the brain is more vigilant, there is often an early spurt of cortisol and it is this that wakes us, leaving us wide awake, grumpy and missing out on much needed sleep.
The brain consolidates and strengthens memory during sleep and without this the brain finds it harder to lay down memory. There is also less emphasis on setting down positive memory. This focus on negative memory, creates a pessimistic outlook, influencing mood and our emotional reaction to the situations we face throughout the day.
The amygdala then on alert, not only notices the negative but actively looks for it at the expense of anything positive that might have happened. Chances are it won’t even have been noticed. Less energy goes to the pre-frontal cortex, (the sensible, rational, analytical part of the brain) and instead is directed to the emotional reactive and impulsive part of the brain, making it a lot harder to regulate emotions which in turn can affect how we respond to difficulties. Once the amygdala has been frequently triggered, it can often become stuck on alert thus keeping the cycle of negativity going.
If we do not get enough REM sleep then toxic chemicals remain in the brain. This buildup of toxins is thought to be one of the causes of some brain degenerative diseases.
So how can I help myself get to sleep?
The things listed below might help you to consider whether you are giving yourself the best opportunity to sleep.
Do you have a regular bedtime? The brain loves structure. The mind builds associations very quickly and if it knows that at certain times, we do certain things it is far more likely to comply. Besides which you really want your body to produce melatonin to help you to relax. If you are keeping yourself awake into the late hours, then the melatonin won’t be able to do its job.
Make sure that your bedroom is cool. When we are in deep sleep, we cannot regular our temperature, so it is important to make sure we are not too hot or too cold for that matter. The best temperature is about 20C.
Try not do activities that keep your mind buzzing such as playing games or using a laptop for a few hours before bed. When you expose your eyes to bright light artificial or blue light emitted from screens, this is a signal to stay alert. You mind needs time to unwind enough so that when you hit the pillow you can switch off.
Try and avoid medicating with alcohol. It may well get you off to sleep in the first instance, but it will disrupt the quality of your sleep leaving you tired and cranky in the morning.
If you cannot sleep, don’t stay in bed. Get up and go somewhere else. You do not want your brain to form an association with your bed as somewhere you go to toss and turn.
What can I do to lower my cortisol?
If your sleep is elusive, it might be that your cortisol levels are too high. Sometimes this can be for an obvious reason such as having suffered a recent trauma. We can understand why in this situation sleeping becomes more difficult. We have a reason why we cannot sleep, and we know that it will pass. At other times it is not so clear why the cortisol levels have crept up. Very often our stresses can build so gradually that we don’t notice that they have taken over. We just accommodate more and more stress until something gives. Often as not this is sleep.
To lead a happy and healthy life, the trick is not to avoid the stresses. We could never do that anyway, they are inevitable. But they are so much easier to contend with when there are things in place to mitigate or balance them out.
Ask yourself are you are spending too long at work or too much time looking after everyone else’s needs? Perhaps you have so much going on in your day from competing priorities that there is no time at all for you? If so, the chances are your life is out of balance and perhaps without an opportunity to produce happy chemicals. With a consistent flow of oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin we have a natural buffer against the effects of stress and more resilience for life’s challenges. It is so important to consider the balance of your day; what must be done, what can be left and what might be helpful to introduce. Imbalance leads to stress.
If we are trying to do too much, overload stops us from doing anything to the best of our ability. Our mind is too rammed to have capacity left to consider anything else. Pressure to get things done and move on to the next task can tarnish the enjoyment. The brain will experience overload as stress.
It isn’t just about making sure we are not doing too much. When stresses mount, we often stop doing the things that could help. This is where things go wrong. It is important to consistently build things into the day for ourselves. Spend time with your tribe whoever them may be. A little bit of positive interaction can really calm us down. Humans always work better together. Sharing experiences and thoughts can offer alternative perspectives and gives a sense of belonging. Time spent doing something enjoyable like reading a book, baking, or developing a new hobby or skill offers a sense of achievement and purpose and can makes us feel good about ourselves. It even increases our motivation for new experiences. Exercise gets the body moving creating a lovely flow of endorphins whether taking a walk with the dog, gardening, or running. We were not meant to be sedentary. Plus being outside and exposed to sunlight boosts out serotonin making us feel happy, calm, and brave!
If you have been really struggling with sleep, you might want to consider having hypnotherapy with a therapist like me. Solution focused hypnotherapy can help you to consider the balance of your life so that you can be the best version of you that it is possible to be. One that can sleep well!