The relationship between Stress and Insomnia – 1

We are all subject to stress, yet we know little about it, or more importantly, how it affects us every day (and night.) Stress is normal. There’s “good” stress, like a challenge if you will, normal  exercise or even excitement, which is called Eustress. Then there’s the “not good” stress, again this can be physical (e.g., broken arm, chronic illness, disorder or disease) or emotional ( e.g., worry, fear) , or organic mental disorder (e.g., depression, addiction, obsessions, compulsions or bi-polar).

The body can deal with stress, what it less well copes with is “strain”, that is the effect the stress is having on our bodies. There are two things to consider here. One is why do some people deal with stuff better than others, and why do people sometimes seem to deal with stuff and then suddenly “BANG” they don’t!

The body’s response to stress of any kind is pretty much the same. It is a primitive survival mechanism which appears to have worked, certainly up until now. The fight-or-flight response is also known as the acute stress response. Essentially, the response prepares the body to either fight or flee the threat. It is also important to note that the response can be triggered due to both real and imaginary threats, this is seen in fear or anxiety respectively.

We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response, well that’s pretty much it. Certain physiological mechanisms come into play as the mind and body recognise a potential danger. It gets ready to fight or run away. This includes redirecting blood from the skin (less chance of bleeding) to the muscles helping to run or fight. Hair erects, not as useful as it used to be when we were furry! I guess Einstein would have been in a constant state of stress!

So, in our “Fight or Flight Mode” our hearts race and we breathe deeply in response to acute stress. The body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous systems stimulates the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines, a group of hormones and neuro-transmitters which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. It even makes us “single minded” or to act with tunnel vision – you often don’t have time to consider and weigh your options – if you’re faced with a bear! After the threat is gone, it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels.

So, this happens when we have to see or speak with someone we don’t want to, do a task that we don’t want to or about which we feel scared of in some way (public speaking!) If someone barely misses us in his/her car, these are often sudden strains but what about when your child has a potentially life-threatening illness, an older parent takes a fall and is bedridden, you or your spouse loses their job and making payments becomes a problem. These are not acute “one time” problems yet they drain your resistance or to look at it another way “fill your stress basket”. Your body has great resistance to stressors, yet its resources are not endless.

These issues reflect life, issues that we face sometimes but sometimes daily. Let’s consider why some people respond better than others and why do people sometimes only seem to.

However, there are limits to the adaptability of the individual. There is a thing called the adaptive response, the so called physiologic adaptive range (PAR). It represents your “goal posts”. If the posts are close together, narrow, there is less adaptive potential. If you’ve been under a lot of stress, you’ve got worries about things that won’t go away or chronic pain or illness, you’ve likely used up a lot of your PAR and have narrow goal posts. If all in life is good and you just got back from a great trip ready for work which you love, you may have wide goal posts and therefore able to deal with the sudden arrival of unforeseen stressors better.

Your PAR can also be seen as a pier. The kind of pier that goes out to the sea. They were very popular in Victorian England (just another way man could prove his prowess against natural forces!) When the tide is in (high tide) you can’t see the pillars or legs the pier stands on. It all looks rather majestic, that’s wide goal posts. When the tide goes out (low tide) suddenly all the seaweed, barnacles and other messy looking stuff is on view – narrow goal posts. Wide goal posts – good adaptation to unforeseen stressors, narrow goal posts – good potential for adaptation to unforeseen stressors.

You can see why this would affect your ability to sleep. You can also see why an illness, disease or other disorder, maybe one that’s always there but below the radar and not medically obvious (sub-clinical) can become clinical when your goal posts are (or become) narrow.

Equally so we tend to think of body and mind as separate but it’s really clear scientifically that they’re not. Just as one organ, tissue or body system talks to another, so effects on one affects the other. That goes for the mind and body too. So why make so much of this? Well, if you’ve read this far you know that sleep is often an issue that modern man has problems with. Some more than other. The answers, indeed, the questions are not always easy. The solution however remains simple (but again not necessarily easy).

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