Sleep might help your stress levels, but simply resting more isn’t the solution

Posted by for Wellbeing

Are you getting eight hours of sleep a night, yet still feeling exhausted? It could be due to the emotional rollercoaster that is lockdown. 

Have you ever finished a long day at work, an intense studying session or just a period of deep concentration feeling completely knackered? While we often consider how much our physical exertion relates to our fatigue, we tend to forget how mental exertion can really take it out of us. 

Right now is prime for mental exertion. We’re working longer hours, having to make decisions that carry more weight than ever before, and constantly adapting to new rules, reasonings and ways of life. In short: life is an emotional rollercoaster. You don’t need stats to back up the stress that you’re feeling, but just in case: lockdown has left almost half of the population feeling anxious and 45% feel unable to cope with the uncertainty of the pandemic, according to the latest research from the Mental Health Foundation

Despite the fact that you may be less physically active than you were pre-pandemic, it’s clear that there’s a shed load of pressure on our brains right now. It’s no wonder we’re more tired than ever. 

Take for instance, Alyss Bowen, Stylist’s social media editor. “I’m an early riser and always have been. But recently – whenever I’ve had a big, busy, stressful day working from, yep you’ve guessed it, home – I wake up feeling exhausted. Not just ‘I need a coffee’ tired but my whole body aches and I can barely string a sentence together. 

“I definitely feel more stressed during this lockdown as I’m currently trying to find a flat. When my working day ends, flat hunting begins and I’m finding it hard to distance myself from screen time which increases my stress, and tiredness, to no end.”

I myself have been feeling the same. I used to sleep seven or eight hours a night, get up at 6am to go to the gym, complete a day in the office and feel… fine? Now, I get eight-plus hours of sleep a night, less physical movement than pre-pandemic, similar working hours and yet… I feel more tired than ever. So, is the cure to our stress-induced sleepiness just a few extra hours in bed?

Sleep in lockdown: Are you sleeping more than usual?

“Stress and anxiety sap our energy, so it’s no wonder intense emotions will leave you feeling more tired,” explains Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and author of The Little Book of Sleep. In an ideal world, we can take onboard stress, feel tired and then recover from that during the night’s shut-eye. The problem is, our stress isn’t ending, meaning we don’t get a chance to restore.

“Stress hormones such as cortisol send our bodies into survival mode, making it harder to have lighter REM sleep and lower amounts of deep, restorative sleep. It’s why you may struggle to get out of the bed in the mornings, even after an eight-hour kip,” Dr Ramlakhan says.

This only adds to the cycle. “Getting good deep sleep is a good way to bolster one’s resilience during a stressful situation,” Dr Ramlakhan says. “Sleeping deeply enables hormonal shifts to occur more smoothly and emotions to be more balanced and even. When sleep is deep and optimal, the parasympathetic nervous system (which deals with rest, repair, recovery) gets a good reboot and the sympathetic nervous system (that deals with stress) is dampened down. But being stressed then often leads to insomnia or light sleep, which is counterproductive.”

The cure-all, which would be to simply reduce stress, feels impossible right now. We can not simply put an end to a pandemic, unfortunately. Instead, the best option is to help our bodies deal with these external pressures, so that when we go to bed we can actually sleep. 

Firstly, try taking regular breaks in your workday. That’s not just to physically remove yourself from the stress of never-ending Slack notifications that are causing chaos in your brain, but to work with your body through its natural peaks and troughs. “Taking breaks every 90-120 minutes falls in line with your Ultradian rhythm,” explains Dr Ramlakhan. That’s the biological cycle your body goes through multiple times a day, where your energy lulls and then peaks. “In doing so, you will attune yourself to the natural rhythm of your physiological cycle – which are oscillatory, not linear – and give yourself a fighting chance of feeling de-stressed, energised and then sleeping well at night.”

Of course, there’s also the lifestyle tweaks we can make that will ensure you can keep your head above the water, rather than drowning in stress. “Good nutrition and hydration, not overindulging in stimulants (such as technology, caffeine and alcohol), getting regular exercise, practising yoga and relaxation techniques, seeking emotional support, keeping up hobbies and spending time in nature,” are where to start, according to Dr Ramlakhan. 

So it turns out that extra hours in bed might not be the saving grace here (goodbye to our only excuse for 8pm bedtime then). But there’s still no shame if you want to spend your day under the covers, if that is what is going to relax you in the moment. Just make sure you get a good balance of rest and activity so your sleep leaves you feeling restored, just as it should. 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).