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Sleeping In Your Stress Response: How Your Stress Is Harming Your Sleep

Posted by Liz Tenuto on

Have you ever wondered why, despite being exhausted, you struggle to get a full night of sleep? Or why you wake up every morning still exhausted!? It's a frustrating paradox that plagues so many of us.

Scientifically speaking, when stress becomes a constant in your life, it can activate your sympathetic nervous system — the part of the nervous system responsible for the 'fight or flight' response — even when you sleep. And the activation of this typically leads to a series of physiological changes that disrupts your night (even if you're not consciously aware of it).

Understanding the intricate connection between stress and sleep is the first step toward reclaiming those precious hours of night-time rejuvenation, so let's talk about it! 👇🏼 

Understanding Your Body's Stress Response

When you're lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, and begging for sleep to come, it's often your body's stress response that's to blame. This response is like an internal alarm system, designed to protect you from harm. But what exactly sets off this alarm? It's stress. And that stress comes from all sorts of places – work deadlines, financial worries, or even that cup of coffee you had too late in the afternoon.

Your body reacts to these stressors by releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Picture it like flipping a switch to turn on your body's 'fight or flight' mode. Your heart rate speeds up, your muscles tense, and your brain becomes hyper-alert – all great things if you need to escape danger, but not so much when you're trying to drift off into dreamland.

This hormonal surge can be helpful in the short term, giving you the energy to meet a deadline or the focus to solve a problem. But when the stress doesn't let up, and your body is constantly on high alert, it takes a toll on both your ability to sleep and quality of sleep.

Here are some major signs that suggest your nervous system is stuck in its stress response while you're sleeping:

Teeth grinding:

Teeth grinding, or bruxism, during sleep is often associated with heightened stress or anxiety. The clenching of your jaw and grinding of your teeth is a subconscious response to the body's stress hormones, indicating an overactive nervous system during sleep.

Frequent nightmares and/or vivid dreams:

Intense or frequent nightmares and vivid dreams are a sign of increased emotional arousal during sleep, indicating that your brain is processing stressors and unresolved emotions.

Sleeping with t-rex arms and/or clenched fists:

Clenching fists or adopting a defensive posture during sleep (like sleeping wit t-rex arms) suggest that your body is physically responding to stress with muscular tension.

Difficulty falling asleep:

Difficulty falling asleep is a result of an overactive fight-or-flight response. Your body continues to remain alert when trying to fall asleep so you struggle to transition into a relaxed state conducive to rest.

Waking up frequently during the night:

Frequent awakenings through the night indicate disrupted sleep cycles, and is a response to your body's heightened sensitivity to stressors, preventing the maintenance of a deep and restorative sleep.

Restless legs:

Restless legs during sleep are linked to an agitated nervous system, with the involuntary leg movements serving as a physical manifestation of your body's inability to fully relax.

Excessive sweating during sleep:

Night sweats are a physiological response to stress hormones, reflecting an elevated sympathetic nervous system activity during your night of sleep.

Racing thoughts before bedtime:

Racing thoughts prior to sleep are indicative of an overactive mind fueled by stress or anxiety, which makes it challenging to achieve a calm mental state necessary for falling asleep.

Tossing and turning in bed:

Restlessness and constant movement in bed signifies a lack of relaxation driven by an unresolved stress response interfering with the ability to settle into restful sleep.

Waking up feeling tired:

Waking up fatigued suggests that the body is not experiencing restorative sleep, which means your nervous system is failing to shift into a state conducive to optimal rest.

Feeling exhausted all day:

Continuous exhaustion throughout the day results from poor sleep quality linked to ongoing stress responses during the night.

Hypervigilance to sounds while sleeping (aka. needing complete quiet or white noise to sleep):

Heightened sensitivity to sounds during sleep indicates a state of hypervigilance, where your nervous system remains on high alert even during periods of rest.

Nocturnal orgasm:

Nocturnal orgasms are influenced by hormonal changes related to stress and occur as your body responds to heightened arousal.

Sleep talking:

Speaking during sleep is a manifestation of increased brain activity linked to heightened stress or emotional processing during the night.


Sleepwalking is associated with disrupted sleep patterns and are a response to your overactive nervous system during specific sleep stages.

Laughing in your sleep:

Laughing during sleep is a response to dreams or emotional processing during the night that's connected to stress and anxiety.

Waking up with pain and tension:

Waking with physical discomfort means your body is not fully relaxed during sleep, which is due to being stuck in your stress response.

Getting up multiple times to pee:

Frequent nighttime urination are a response to heightened stress hormones affecting bladder function, contributing to sleep disturbances.

Lucid dreaming:

Lucid dreaming, where you are aware you're dreaming, is linked to increased cognitive activity during sleep, which is influenced by stress and emotional arousal.

Sleep apnea:

Sleep apnea, characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep, is exacerbated by stress, which can trigger and worsen the condition.

Sleep paralysis:

Sleep paralysis, a temporary inability to move or speak while falling asleep or waking up, is associated with disruptions in your sleep architecture related to stress and anxiety.

Excessive movement or jerking:

Excessive movement during sleep signals an inability of the nervous system to reach a state of calmness and relaxation at night. 

The feeling of heightened anxiety at bedtime:

Heightened anxiety specifically at bedtime suggests that the sleep environment or the anticipation of sleep is triggering stress responses, making it difficult to unwind.

Experiencing intrusive thoughts during sleep or right before sleep:

Intrusive thoughts during sleep are a reflection of unresolved stressors, impacting the ability to achieve a calm mental state right before bedtime.

How To Sleep Better

Recognizing these symptoms is the first step towards addressing the underlying stress being stored in your body.

And the good news is that you can release that stored stress and get your body out of its stress response with somatic exercises. 

Somatic exercises are an effective and holistic approach to release your tension and help your nervous system shift from a persistent stress response to a calm state, thereby promoting better sleep.

These exercises involve mindful movements and bodily awareness which aims to address muscular and sensory patterns that contribute to stress-related symptoms. By engaging in somatic exercises, you can gradually release chronic muscular contractions and retrain your nervous system to a more balanced state. Focused attention on breath, movement, and body sensations during somatic practices promotes a sense of relaxation, allowing your nervous system to recalibrate. As your body learns to let go of habitual stress responses through these mindful movements, you’ll feel relief from the symptoms that are preventing you from finally getting a restful night's sleep.

Release stored stress and experience the sleep of your dreams with our best selling 30-day course Release Your Stress & Stored Trauma!