I’ve been working on becoming more mindful of late, and one side effect I’ve experienced from doing so is noticing how often my shoulders hunch up in tension. Last night while lying awake at 2 a.m., I realized the muscles of my neck and back felt as stiff as the proverbial board. This made me wonder about the relationship between stress and sleep.
I’m far from the first person to note that it becomes harder to catch some Zs when under pressure for any reason. However, what effect does the long-term stress so many Americans feel have on sleep? Research indicates that while not all insomnia stems from feelings of anxiety, a good number of people find their sleep deprivation results from their brains refusing to hit the off switch at the end of the day.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, insomnia refers to being unable to fall or stay asleep when given the chance to do so. Almost everyone suffers the occasional night full of tossing and turning, and acute insomnia attacks lasting only a day or two generally resolve themselves. Those experiencing sleeplessness due to stress often find themselves snoring merrily away again once the situation creating their racing thoughts passes.
For others, though, insomnia becomes a constant and unwelcome companion. Many women suffering from an underlying anxiety disorder find sleep becomes harder to find. More women than men experience an anxiety disorder at least once during their lifetimes.
Given the relationship between stress and sleep, determining which came first — does anxiety cause insomnia or does sleeplessness create stress — can prove as tough to solve as the old chicken-and-egg conundrum. Consider the life events occurring around the inability to sleep. The more trying life circumstances were when the insomnia began, the more likely it is that stress is the culprit keeping eyes open all night long.
Sometimes, insomnia arises due to hormonal changes in the body. Women experience fluctuating hormone levels as they enter perimenopause, the years before actual menopause occurs. While most women with thyroid disease experience sluggishness, those with hyperthyroidism can experience insomnia as a side effect. Fortunately, this type of sleeplessness normally dissipates once medications restore hormonal balance.
Chronic insomnia leaves women feeling understandably drained in daily life, which creates difficulty both at work and at home. While both men and women work outside the home in today’s world, women still bear the brunt of tackling the majority of unpaid labor, such as housekeeping and child-rearing. On average, women spend 4.5 hours every day engaged in uncompensated work. Add in a job or two, and it’s no wonder so many women find their sheep-counting interrupted by thoughts of their to-do list.
Running on full tilt at all times results in a state of perpetual hyperarousal, making winding down at the end of the day seem well nigh impossible. Although insomniacs often feel like no one understands, their sleeplessness impacts society as a whole. Workplace mistakes due to excessive tiredness impact the economy, and getting behind the wheel after a string of sleepless nights can lead to fatal accidents.
Additionally, many women have more reasons to stress than their male counterparts. While workplace harassment affects those of both genders, women experience this far more often. Even women in healthy workplaces often feel more pressure to perform, feeling the only way to get ahead is to go above and beyond daily. Despite moves toward equality, women still earn significantly less than men, causing financial stress.
Even the reality of climate change causes anxiety and accompanying sleeplessness in women. Many women, especially those who survived natural disasters like hurricanes, fear further devastation if humans continue to ignore this threat. Some women choose not to have children at all due to fears of future suffering caused by pollution of the air and water.
Regardless of the underlying cause, women can remedy chronic insomnia through a number of treatments. Women whose insomnia stems from having too much on their plate often find relief in a heart-to-heart talk with their partner about dividing up household chores more equally. Those experiencing workplace anxiety may find speaking with their boss intimidating, but doing so can help women get the support they need to succeed.
Because of the relationship between stress and sleep, some women find relief by incorporating mind-body practices into their lives. Yoga and meditation teach practitioners to develop an awareness of the present moment, which can break the pattern of sleeplessness. Remember: Worrying means what someone fear is not happening at the current time.
Cognitive behavioral therapy helps women identify the root cause of their anxiety. Putting fears into words has a way of making them appear less overwhelming. Once the problem is detected, women can take measures to solve it.
Both over-the-counter and prescription sleep medications may help those who cannot get adequate rest, especially when diseases or certain other medications make a woman sleepless. Those who have fibromyalgia, for example, often find sleep difficult since the pain makes it impossible to find a comfortable position. Many common blood pressure medications can cause insomnia as a pesky side effect.
Insomnia can make waking life a misery, and women who experience more than a handful of sleepless nights benefit from knowing help exists. With proper treatment, they can learn how to ease their way into dreamland night after night.