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  • Writer's pictureLana Walsh

How Stress is Keeping Us Awake

Updated: Jul 8, 2022

Insomniacs, and even some good sleepers, have a harder time getting a good night's sleep on stressful days.

The brain is fascinating. Neuroscientists believe that 95% of what we do is controlled by our subconscious. Ninety-five percent! That's incredible.

The Negativity Bias of the Subconscious Brain

Our subconscious brain controls many things that we don't want to have to think about, like making sure our heart continues beating or continuing to fill our lungs with air. However, there are many thoughts, emotions, and behaviours that our subconscious has taken control of that we really would like to have conscious control of.

The subconscious mind was designed to keep us safe. Its role is to ensure that we survive. And in so doing, has created a negativity bias. This bias is explained really well by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., in his book Hardwiring Happiness.

"Our ancestors could make two kinds of mistakes: (1) thinking there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t one, and (2) thinking there was no tiger in the bushes when there actually was one. The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, while the cost of the second one was death. Consequently, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once . . . the default setting of the brain is to overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities, and underestimate resources both for coping with threats and for fulfilling opportunities. Then we update these beliefs with information that confirms them, while ignoring or rejecting information that doesn’t . . . As a result, we end up preoccupied by threats that are actually smaller or more manageable than we’d feared, while overlooking opportunities that are actually greater than we’d hoped for."

How Does This Affect Us Day-to-Day?

Every day we are subjected to a number of stressful situations, from getting cut off in traffic, to having a disagreement with our partner, and each of these events adds to our negativity bias, reinforcing that our lives are filled with danger. These daily threats engage our fight or flight response (the stress response). This response involves the body producing cortisol, the stress hormone, and increasing our heart rate and blood pressure while decreasing fuel storage and insulin production in anticipation of the energy expenditure of fighting or fleeing.

In today's society, we are not often faced with a physical threat, but we are exposed to psychological stressors all the time. When you feel anger, frustration, irritation, panic, blame, or even pride, you are invoking the stress response. The problem is, that the psychological stressors we face every day, don't involve the energy expenditure of fighting or fleeing, thus the cortisol doesn't get expelled, and it takes longer for the physiological effects to normalize.

What Are The Symptoms of Excessive Stress?

The more we're exposed to these stressors every day, the more likely we are to be in a perpetually stressed state which results in elevated levels of cortisol in the body. This leads to a number of health problems that we often blame on lack of sleep, such as:

  • Slower metabolism

  • Fatigue

  • Weight gain

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Lowered creativity

  • Decreased problem-solving abilities

  • Lower productivity

  • Depression

  • Weakened immune response

  • Poor sleep

In addition, when we have a stressful day, research shows that the elevated levels of cortisol continue to rise through the night, keeping our heart rate and blood pressure elevated which leads to more disrupted sleep.

How Do You Combat This?

Find a stress-relieving activity. All the sleep experts say to get more exercise, meditate, and try yoga for a reason, to reduce your stress and help you sleep better. Here are some other ways to help relieve your stress:

  • Become an optimist - view setbacks as temporary, avoid generalizing a problem to your whole life, refrain from dismissing good things, avoid blaming yourself, use positive affirmations, and practice gratitude.

  • Reach out to your social networks - research shows that people with social support, like family, friends, and community, are healthier and less likely to develop mental and physical illnesses.

  • Laugh your stress away - studies show that laughter numbs pain, produces a mild state of euphoria, and reduces stress and anxiety by allowing us to look at a problem from a different viewpoint.

  • Volunteer - a major study found that men who volunteered were 2½ times less likely to die (from any cause) than men who didn't volunteer.

Reducing Stress Helps You Sleep

We may not be able to change how our subconscious brain reacts in situations that cause us stress, but we can use stress-reducing activities to help our bodies recover from the elevated state we get into. In turn, this will help us to relax and ultimately, sleep better.

Get my free Daily Stressors Exercise to help you work through your stress.

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