We all feel stress from time to time. It’s a natural reaction that can be triggered by a variety of situations, and you’re certainly not alone if you’ve ever found yourself feeling overwhelmed and anxious because of difficult events in your life. In fact, a 2021 survey by Statistics Canada revealed that 27.5% of Canadians aged 35 to 49 years considered most of their days to be “quite a bit or extremely stressful.”

Although it’s completely normal to feel stressed, leaving these feelings unmanaged for long periods of time can be detrimental to your wellbeing. Here, we’ll discuss what stress actually is and what you can do to combat it.

What is stress?

When you go through a life change or are faced with a challenge, your body reacts physically and mentally — this is stress, your body’s natural response to threats (both real and perceived).

The purpose of stress is to prepare you for some sort of action that will get you to safety. Stress responses can help your body acclimate to new situations, keeping you alert and ready to react in order to solve the problem that lies ahead. For example, if you have a deadline coming up at work, stress responses may allow you to stay awake for longer and work harder. In these situations, stress can be manageable (and perhaps even helpful).

However, most stressful issues we encounter these days are problems we have to work through — not problems we can fight or run away from. So when stressors continue to appear and you’re unable to escape them, stress can become a real problem.

Stress often occurs when you feel a situation demands more of you than you’re capable of dealing with, either because of your own concerns or due to a lack of resources. When stress becomes overwhelming, addressing the original problem can seem like an insurmountable task. This can lead to avoidance of the issue that caused the stress in the first place, which can make the issue worse and result in even more stress.

Common sources of stress include major life events (such as moving, changing jobs, or the death of a loved one), long-term worries (like a serious illness), financial troubles, and more. Even day-to-day inconveniences like being late to work because of a traffic jam can be a source of stress.

How does stress affect your body?

Many people experience physical symptoms when they’re stressed, including headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, chest pain, stomach problems, and more. Stress can also take a toll on us mentally, making it difficult to concentrate and sometimes resulting in intrusive thoughts.

When people suffer from stress over a prolonged period of time (known as chronic stress), more serious health conditions can occur. Chronic stress has been linked to depression, heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, and a variety of other medical issues.

Links between stress and sleep

Stress can have a profound impact on how much — and how well — you sleep. In the 2013 Stress in America™ survey from the American Psychological Association, 43% of adults reported that stress had caused them to lie awake at night within the past month. Many also stated they become more stressed when they notice a decrease in the length and quality of their sleep (this is known as the sleep-stress cycle).

The same survey revealed that on average, adults with lower reported stress levels slept more hours a night (7.1 hours) than adults who reported higher stress levels (6.2 hours). Only 33% of respondents who recorded high stress levels felt they got enough sleep in comparison to 79% of respondents with lower stress levels.

There is a clear correlation between stress and sleep. You may feel as if you’re stuck in the sleep-stress cycle, unable to sleep because you’re stressed and stressed because you’re unable to sleep. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to manage stress and mitigate its effects on your rest.

Tips for reducing stress at bedtime

There are many steps you can incorporate into your nighttime routine to alleviate stress, including:

  • Practising meditation or other relaxation techniques (like breathing exercises)
  • Participating in meditative movement, such as gentle yoga
  • Taking a warm shower or bath
  • Improving your sleep environment (by making it darker, quieter, or more comfortable)
  • Limiting alcohol and caffeine consumption — alcohol can negatively affect the way your body handles stress
  • Avoiding exposure to blue light near bedtime

It’s important to also practise stress management techniques throughout the day, rather than allowing stress to build up unchecked and unaddressed. The first step to managing stress is identifying the problem. From there, you can decide how to approach the issue and what you can do to solve it.

Talking through your problems with a friend or family member can be therapeutic. Many people find expressing their thoughts through journaling to be an effective stress-reliever. Going for a walk or a run can also be beneficial in managing stress: exercise increases your brain’s production of mood-boosting endorphins and reduces the level of stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) in your body.

There’s no way to completely avoid or prevent stress — but these are just some of the steps you can take towards dealing with it when it does happen. For further information on restless sleep and what you can do to improve your sleep, please read:

If you feel you are suffering from chronic stress — or that ongoing stress is affecting your day-to-day life — consult your family doctor for further guidance.