Stress and Insomnia

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I have a stress-filled job, and I also have periodic bouts of insomnia. Could there be a connection between the two?

In a word, yes. Not all insomnia is due to stress, but people who are under considerable stress can have insomnia. In the case of insomnia related to stress, alleviating the stress should alleviate the insomnia. Stress causes insomnia by making it difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep, and by affecting the quality of your sleep. Stress causes hyperarousal, which can upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness. Nevertheless, many people under stress do not have insomnia.

How can I know if my insomnia is the result of stress, or something else?

As with any symptom, an important question to ask is "when did it start?" Does the sleep problem come and go with the occurrence and disappearance of stress or does it persist through all the permutations of one's life? That is, is it situational? Also it is helpful to clarify what one means by stress.

For example, are you frequently anxious whether or not you are under unusual stress? Is it hard for you to "wind down" at the end of the day? Are you frequently infuriated? Or do you feel depressed? If you feel "blue" much of the time, your problem may be a mood disorder, like depression, more than a problem with stress.

What then should I do to help my insomnia?

No matter what the cause of your insomnia, it's important to get on a good behavior program—one that pays attention to periods of relaxation. I suggest three steps:

  • First, set your bedtime and your wake-up time according to the number of hours of sleep you are getting currently. For example, if you are sleeping only five hours a night (even though you usually plan to spend eight hours in bed), set your sleep time for that amount. Then gradually increase the amount of time allotted for sleep by 15 minutes or so every few nights. The idea is to "squeeze out" the middle of the nighttime awakening and gradually increase