Stress can leave you feeling exhausted. It’s quite common to feel tired in stressful situations.
We often associate stress with restlessness. Your worries might make you feel anxious and fidgety, leading to insomnia. But the reverse can be true: some people find that stress makes them sleepy.
You might get out of a stressful meeting and struggle to keep your eyes open at your desk. Or you might have an argument with your partner and immediately feel like napping.
During longer periods of stress — say, during exam season or a move — you might find that you can’t sleep at night, making you feel tired the next day and throwing off your sleep-wake cycle.
Being stressed can make you feel exhausted, but there are a few healthy ways to beat the anxiety and fatigue.
Yes, stress can make you sleepy. There might be a few reasons for this.
Stress, flight-or-fight mode, and exhaustion
When we’re stressed, we enter “fight, flight, or freeze” mode.
When you encounter a threat, such as a near-accident or an altercation with your boss, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Your body floods with hormones, including cortisol — the stress hormone. These hormones rely on your energy to be able to flee or fight in a dangerous situation.
When your sympathetic nervous system takes over, you might experience the following:
- increased heart rate
- chest pain
- fast, shallow breathing
- dry mouth
- muscle tension
- rush of energy
- stomach pain or digestive issues
All this activity takes a toll on your body. When those flight-or-fight hormones crash, you might find it hard to focus or stay awake, even if it’s during the daytime. It can exhaust your body, leaving you sleepy.
Stress, insomnia, and tiredness
Stress can lead to insomnia. If stress keeps you awake at night you’ll probably feel more tired the next day.
A lack of sleep can increase anxiety. This can lead to a damaging cycle of anxiety, daytime sleepiness, and insomnia.
If you find it hard to fall asleep, try to improve your sleep hygiene. It’s also a good idea to talk with a doctor if you’re not getting enough sleep.
Using sleep to escape stress
If you often find yourself taking naps when you’re stressed, it might simply be that it’s a way for you to temporarily escape your anxiety.
Unfortunately, in the long term, this might cause more stress — especially if you neglect your responsibilities in order to nap. While avoiding your problems can be tempting, it also means that you’re not directly dealing with the root of your stress.
People who have anxiety disorders might produce irregular amounts of cortisol as a result of constantly feeling stressed. Consistently high levels of cortisol can cause physical symptoms.
The physical effects of anxiety can include:
- chest pain
- digestive issues (like nausea or diarrhea)
- heart issues (like high blood pressure)
- low libido
- shortness of breath or rapid breathing
The good news is that anxiety disorders can be treated, and it’s possible to learn how to cope with stress in a healthy and effective way.
1. Cut back on unessential responsibilities
When you’re going through a stressful period, it might be best to reduce your workload.
If something is bringing you stress and not joy, try to scale it back. This could look like un-volunteering from your office’s party-planning committee or putting a pause on your plan to adopt a new kitten/puppy.
The point isn’t to avoid all stress or isolate yourself. If something is time-consuming but very enjoyable, go ahead and keep doing it. But try to reconsider activities that bring you more anxiety than they’re worth. It’s up to you to weigh up the benefits and drawbacks of your current responsibilities.
2. Try some pleasurable movement
When you’re tired, exercise might be the last thing you want to do.
However, research shows that exercise reduces stress levels. It can also help you sleep better, which means you might feel less sleepy during the day. A 2021 meta-analysis noted that exercise seems to improve perceived sleep quality and reduce the severity of insomnia.
And, although it might sound counterintuitive, exercise can improve your energy levels.
If you find yourself falling asleep at your desk, try something simple like a quick walk or a few star-jumps. If you’re super low on energy, get up and stretch or walk around the room for a few minutes.
Read 8 Ways to Exercise When You’re Depressed for more ideas.
3. Find quick ways to ease anxiety
There are a few ways to soothe stress in the moment. When you feel your energy levels rising, try to calm yourself quickly so that your cortisol levels don’t spike too much.
You could try:
- deep breathing techniques like pursed-lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing
- journaling for five or ten minutes
- changing your scenery by taking a short break outside or going to another room
- listening to soothing music
Experiment with different stress-reducing activities and use them whenever the anxiety bubbles up. Using relaxation techniques before bed might help you sleep better, too. Try guided sleep meditation if you have trouble falling asleep.
Should you give into your urge to sleep or not? It depends on your circumstances.
For example, if you often find yourself napping as a way to “escape” stress, this can eventually catch up with you. You’ll also want to avoid napping too close to bed time.
But if you’ve been through a traumatic or stressful experience, naps can help restore your energy levels. Napping can also be a good way to take the edge off your sleepiness.
In order to nap effectively, nap for 20 to 30 minutes only — longer naps might leave you feeling groggy. Use a soothing sound as an alarm tone so that you don’t wake up in a panic.
5. Consider therapy
Stress can affect your energy levels, making you feel sleepy. However, there are ways to manage stress and increase your energy levels.
If you often feel stressed, or if you usually experience sleeplessness and daytime tiredness, you might benefit from speaking with a therapist. There are also some practical self-help steps you can try on your own.