A woman struggling with insomnia at night

How to get to sleep after an argument

Welcome to Sleepless Nights, Stylist’s weekly series designed to help you put your anxiety and worries to bed. This week, we’re exploring how to get a good night’s sleep when an argument has left you feeling angry and stressed out.

While the idea that you should ‘never go to bed angry’ is a pretty commonly held belief, resolving a late-night argument with a friend, partner or family member isn’t always possible.  

It’s true that studies have shown that going to bed angry may help to reinforce those emotions, making them harder to forget in the long term. But it’s also true that being tired can exacerbate conflict. Sometimes, going to bed really is the best thing you can do – and that’s OK.

However, while going to bed can sometimes be what’s right for you and your relationship, falling asleep when you’re angry or stressed out can be a challenge, due to the way these emotions manifest in the body.  

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“When you are angry or stressed, your body releases catecholamines (including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and even dopamine) which are responsible for giving you a burst of energy lasting a few minutes,” explains Dr Lindsay Browning, sleep expert at Trouble Sleeping and author of the self-help book Navigating Sleeplessness.

“These hormones, which are produced in your brain, nerve tissues and adrenal glands, speed up your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, muscle strength and mental alertness. This may also result in your face becoming flushed red as the blood rushes around your body helping you to be ready to fight.”

Because these hormones are designed to put your body in “a heightened state of alert,” they make it harder to get to sleep, Dr Browning adds. 

A woman sat up after an argument with her husband
The hormones associated with anger and stress make sleep difficult.

“Sleep happens when your body is calm and relaxed, and if your body is anxious and tense with catecholamines racing around your body, then you will be physically unable to fall asleep,” she explains.

Because this heightened state of alert makes sleep unachievable, the number one thing you need to do in order to be able to sleep after an argument is to calm down. In an ideal world, this would be achieved by reaching a state of resolution in the argument. But, if that’s not possible, there are several techniques that you can use instead. 

Kathryn Pinkham is an insomnia specialist and founder of The Insomnia Clinic. She says that writing down your thoughts using pen and paper is an effective way to start the wind-down process if you can’t resolve things straight away. 

“Writing down everything you’re thinking is a really therapeutic way of telling your brain that you aren’t ignoring this but that you don’t need to deal with it right now,” she explains. “It can also help you to get a different perspective on things once you see how you feel in black and white.”

Pinkham also suggests taking a few deep breaths, “as this will help to calm your nervous system and reduce your heart rate”.

Echoing Pinkham’s advice, Dr Browning also recommends using deep breathing to decrease amygdala activity (the region of the brain which controls our decisions when we’re angry or stressed) and reduce overall arousal. 

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“Slow deep breathing, such as the 4-7-8 breathing technique, is great for calming down,” she explains. 

“This technique involves breathing in through your nose for a count of four, making sure that you breathe deep down filling the bottom of your lungs. Next, hold that breath for a count of seven, then purse your lips like you’re about to blow up a balloon and breathe out slowly and continually for a count of eight. Repeat these steps between four to eight times.”

While these techniques are unlikely to alleviate all the stress and anger you may be experiencing, they’re certainly a great place to start if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Having an argument at any time of the day isn’t nice, let alone just before bed, but giving your body the time it needs to rest and recover will help you to approach the situation with a fresh perspective.  

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