If you’re having trouble sleeping, having wacky vivid dreams, or feeling unusually tired during the day at the moment, rest assured there’s nothing wrong with you. These are all normal reactions to highly abnormal events.
A lot of people are describing feeling unusually tired at the moment, sleeping worse, and noticing strange things happening in their dreams. What does science tell us about stress and the impact on our sleep and daytime energy?
- Stress makes us tired. Most people associate stress with feeling wired, but stress and fatigue also go hand and hand. Stress increases cortisol and puts us into fight-or-flight mode, which simply taxes the body’s energy levels. Even if you feel that what is happening isn’t actually that bad for you, any extra mental load at the moment will cause you to be more alert, and then potentially tire you out.
- Stress impacts our sleep cycle, and research suggests it can cause us to spend more time in lighter stages of less restorative sleep. It’s also just harder to wind-down and relax enough to fall and stay asleep.
- People dream more vividly during stressful times, and some propose it’s because we spend more time in REM when we’re stressed. We also know that an increase in anxiety during the day can result in dreaming more negatively at night. Dreams might be related to the event, or completely unrelated. We shouldn’t get too caught up in trying to analyse weird or recurrent dreams, as we don’t have a reliable evidence-based way of understanding the content of them yet. Dr Mary-Ellen Lynell, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Cambridge University, points out that “scientifically, what makes our dreams more or less graphic is essentially mysterious. Research suggests that the more in tune we are with our feelings during our waking hours, the more colourful (literally) and memorable are our dreams”. Read the full article here.
So what can you do to support healthy sleep during stressful times? It’s something that will likely ebb and flow for most and will probably come right as things return to normal, whenever that will be. But in the meantime, these strategies outlined by the expert team of clinicians and researchers at the Sleep Wake Centre at Massey University will help:
- Try to keep your sleep and wake times regular – the official recommendation for adults is 7-9 hours per night
- Create a protected evening wind-down time (and avoid screens before bed)
- Keep bed for sleep – and not work, Zoom meetings, or Netflix watching
- Avoid caffeine later in the day
- Limit alcohol – it interferes with the quality of your sleep
- Avoid heavy meals close to bedtime
- Create an environment that is conducive to sleep – have the room temp slightly cooler than what it would be if you were up and about, and sort out any noise issues
- Spend at least 30 minutes outside during daytime hours – this keeps our body clock in a stable day-night cycle
- Keep physically and mentally active (reading, not scrolling, before bed is a good way to wind down)
As a Psychologist who often works with people who struggle with sleep issues, the advice I constantly give is to try and let go of the struggle a bit and accept that while your sleep mightn’t be great, it’s probably not as bad as you think it is (studies have proven this). If you convince yourself you have a sleep problem, and obsess over getting a good night’s sleep, your sleep might actually get worse. Paradoxically, if you can stop trying so hard to fall asleep, be ok with not sleeping that great for a bit, and find ways to relax around bedtime, you’ll probably find it easier to fall, and stay asleep.