Why stress keeps you awake even when you’re tired

Why stress keeps you awake even when you’re tired

by Evigan Xiao 11 Feb 2020

You would think that after spending a long day at work, rushing off to pick up the kids and then speeding back to be in time for dinner would leave you tired enough to just drop off once you hit the pillow, but then nothing happens. Worse; you fall asleep but get jolted awake just 15 minutes later. What’s going on here?


Folktales usually paint the picture of some evil eldritch creature being the cause of your late-night misfortunes, but luckily the truth isn’t that horrifying. Being under stress has the interesting effect of making you feel restless and tired at the same time. It’s a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle: you get stressed, you try to sleep, you can’t sleep, you get more stressed… See where this is going?


Part of it has to do it how stress affects the body’s circadian rhythm. The body doesn’t just go to sleep because it’s night time; it does so because its internal clock says it’s time for some shut-eye. This is why flying across different time zones can result in jet-lag. Exposure to chronic, low-grade stress messes with the circadian rhythm because the mind is persistently telling the body to be on alert. Imagine an army regiment being constantly bull horned into a late-night turn-out every night at random intervals; that’s what stress does to your sleep pattern.


The other explanation for stress-induced sleep aberrations is the rise in cortisol levels. Whether you’re facing down a mountain lion or fretting over a math problem, stress causes the adrenals to produce cortisol as part of a survival mechanism. Cortisol’s role is to provide short-term energy to assist in situations where a “fight-or-flight” response is usually required. However, incessant stress leads to constantly elevated cortisol levels, which means your body is also put in a near-permament state of high alert. Furthermore, chronically elevated cortisol can lead to depletion of the adrenal glands.

To say that the best way to escape all this is to avoid unnecessary stress is an understatement; the human body just wasn’t made to handle constant worrying. Periodic exposure is tolerated well enough, but there should be opportunities in place for the body to recover as well. The quickest way to run a body into the ground would be to deny it the rest it requires.


There are several things you can do to protect the sanctity of your sleep:


  • Eat a small meal consisting of whole, unrefined carbohydrates before bed
  • Consume a serving of dairy – milk or Greek yoghurt is fine
  • Meditate for five to ten minutes to calm down
  • Refrain from watching any screens 30 minutes prior to sleeping
  • Use a quality sleep supplement like ZMA


At the end of the day, the idea is to minimise stress’s intrusion on your sleeping time. This can be done either by addressing the issue at its source or by taking measures to “bulletproof” your sleep. Either way, you’ll be the one who ends up benefitting from all of it.