If you’re Not Stressed You’re Dead

Whether by good stress or bad stress, whether we are aware of it or not, we are all stressed. The real question is: are you willing to admit it? Even under some of the most troubling circumstances I find that people have a tendency to minimize their level of stress either by dismissing it, “My life is great. I really don’t have any reason to be stressed” or by minimizing it, “Yes, caring for my ailing parents is challenging, but it’s not like I’m living in a war zone.” The bottom line is that Stress is our default state, the inevitable reality of the human experience. In most cases, we adapt and overcome. Other times we may be unable to adjust because the stress is too chronic, intense, or unpredictable. This is when stress can have an even more significant effect. Accordingly, stress is commonly an important part of insomnia, especially when it’s a constant part life.

Your sleep problem may be a stress problem.

If you have trouble sleeping and nothing you do seems to help, these little known types of stress may be silently wreaking havoc on your sleep. To understand why these kinds of stress are an almost universal problem, let’s start with a few hard facts about sleep:

  1. Sleep is a stationary activity. 
  2. Sleep requires you to set aside the concerns of the day. 
  3. Sleep is not something you do, but something that happens to you.

This means that if we want to sleep well and consistently we must…stop…let go…and let it happen.

This is a problem because of six kinds of stress.

Going Stress

More and more we spend our days pushing ourselves full speed, morning to night. If you are a “normal” American this is how your day might look:

Wake up > rush out the door > Go. Go. Go. > Have a free moment, but decide to fill it with something like email, Facebook, chores or phone calls > Go some more > Skip lunch or at least keep going while you eat > Go. Go. Go. > Maybe have dinner, but don’t stop now or you might not get started again so Go. Go. Go. > Get in bed and try to sleep.

After going like this day after day you will forget how to stop. You will forget how to be still while awake. If you forget how to be still while awake, you can no longer stop long enough for sleep to take you.

Tangle Stress

Sleep is supposed to be an escape, an opportunity for you to recharge and recover in a way that allows you to meet the next day feeling refreshed and renewed. In order for this to happen you must be able to let go of the pressures and worries of the day for a little while.

This is difficult because you likely have so many things going on and so much to keep track of with your mind that it’s almost impossible to let it all go. Everything you want to, have to, need to, would like to, forgot to, should, or must DO creates what’s called an open loop.1

Open loops create mental and physical tension that lasts until you “close them” by doing whatever it is you need to do. Every open loop creates tension, no matter how small or unimportant it may seem. You probably have dozens (maybe more) of these open loops at the end of any given day.

What happens to your open loops when bedtime comes?

Well, you may juggle your loops skillfully, gracefully, and joyfully throughout the day and then set them aside so you can sleep blissfully most nights. More likely, you get tangled up in the tension of these loops and find you can’t get untangled when bedtime arrives.

If you get too used to the tangle, you may forget that this tangle stress is even there. Once this happens, you won’t “feel” stressed but the tension of your open loops will leave you awake and wondering why you can’t sleep.

Control Stress

Sleep is one of those things that become harder to get the more you try to get it. It’s something that happens to you, something you have to let happen rather than something you do.

Unfortunately, most of us are not that good at just letting things happen…even when we really, really want to. When was the last time you thought, “Oooh, I’m hungry. Let me just relax her a while. I’m sure something yummy will come along.”

The whole idea of sitting still and doing nothing when you really want or need something (like sleep) goes against our every instinct. Unfortunately, this is exactly how sleep works. This issue of being unable to control sleep is the entire focus of Chapter 11 (LAW #8:  Sleep is Slippery), so I’m not going to get into it any deeper here.

Thinking Stress

We’ve all experienced a time when trying to sleep and can’t seem to stop thinking about something that happened during the day, something coming up tomorrow or some stress in our life. These thoughts that arise when things get still, and dark, and quiet at night can be a good indicator of stress in our lives.

Maybe you’re facing pressure at work. Maybe you’re planning a wedding or expecting a baby. Maybe you’ve had an argument with someone close to you. Whatever it is, “losing sleep over it,” is normal if whatever it is your thinking about is important to you. You’re supposed to think, and plan, and worry about these things to some degree and its normal to for this activity of your mind to override the sleep system for a time. When the stressful thing passes, your mind calms down and you’re able to sleep again…at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. But what happens when you get into a worry habit and your mind continues to try to problem solve the things that stress you out? Well, unless you’re taking steps during the day to choose and direct the attention and content of your mind then there is no reason to expect that you’ll be able to direct your thoughts away from stress when you want to at bed time. Take a look at Chapter 10 (LAW #7: Insomnia is a Mind Problem) for more on how your mind may be fueling the fires of insomnia.

Relationship Stress

Good, bad, or ugly, our relationships with others are almost always the most important aspect of our lives. Whether with our parents or our children, our partners or friends, our coworkers, employees or bosses, our relationships affect us for better or worse. These effects happen whether we like it or not. In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman talks about two aspects of relationship that can’t help but affect our sleep.2

Emotional Contagion and Mirror Neurons

“At an unconscious level, we are in constant dialogue with anyone we interact with, our every feeling and very way of moving attuned to theirs.”2

Emotions are contagious. We don’t just sense what others are feeling we actually “mirror” what they are feeling in our own brains and bodies. In order to understand the situation and the relationship fully we actually take on the emotional experience of the other person at the most basic physical and neurological level. This has powerful implications for our ability to sleep.

If the people around us are happy and friendly and calm at bedtime we will have that experience as we prepare for bed and lie down to sleep. If the people around us are stressed, frustrated, upset, or angry at bedtime, then we may basically be “sleeping with the enemy” as our emotional state is likely to infect us with those anti-sleep emotions.

Rehashing Relationships

“…the brain’s default activity – what happens when nothing much else goes on – seems to be mulling over our relationships.”2

If our relationships are great then this background rehashing of our relationships probably creates a sense of calm and security that is likely to promote sleep. However, if our relationships are in conflict this rehashing may significantly interfere with the winding down and letting go necessary to initiate sleep. This aspect of relationship stress is particularly important in relationships characterized by chronic conflict or dissatisfaction, especially when those relationships are with a spouse, partner, or child.

Regret and Guilt Stress

Regret and guilt stress are related to tangle stress but it’s common enough and has a big enough effect on our level of stress I like to talk about it separately. Remember that tangle stress is caused by open loops, which create mental and physical tension that lasts until you close them by taking some action to finalize or resolve them.

A normal open loop involves anything and everything you want to, have to, need to, would like to, forgot to, should, or must DO that is left unresolved at the end of the day. Open loops due to regret or guilt involve things we have done or failed to do that we are not proud of or wish we had handled differently. Depending on the incident, these open loops may have stronger or weaker effects on our level of stress and sleep.

Regret and guilt stress are a unique problem because we tend to avoid closing the loops they create. Think about it. We all do things we are not proud of pretty much every day. We say things to the people we care about that are hurtful or speak to them in a hurtful tone. We cut someone off in traffic or behave rudely because we are in a hurry. We all say and do things with the potential to open loops of guilt or regret, even if not intentionally. Pretty much anything we do that does not fit with our sense of integrity can cause these types of open loops. Not doing the things we know we need to do to take care of ourselves is another good example. “I should spend more time playing with the kids.” Or, “I need to be going to the gym and not eat so many sweets.”

Now think about the last time you took action to resolve these types of open loops. When was the last time you apologized? When was the last time you actively caught yourself not doing something you thought you should and then made a choice to change you behavior in that direction? If your answer is “not recently” or “not very often” then welcome to the club. Because these loops are connected with feelings of guilt or regret they can be particularly hard to close. This is why they can lurk in the background causing unrecognized stress for long periods of time.

What to do?

There are many ways to handle stress but I have developed a particular liking for mindfulness training. Mindfulness based meditation is emerging as one of the most powerful ways to manage both sleep and stress problems. In fact, mindfulness recently made the cover of Time magazine.3 Science is also proving the power of mindfulness for better sleep. In one study, mindfulness based meditation was compared to the sleep drug Lunesta for treatment of insomnia.4 The researchers in this study found that meditation resulted in sleep improvements equal to those obtained with medication. The difference of course being the lack of dependence or dangerous side effects associated with meditation. Another group of researchers from Stanford University combined mindfulness based meditation with sleep transformation training. They found that this combined strategy helped participants significantly reduce sleep effort and pre-sleep arousal, two factors associated with insomnia.5 These benefits were mostly maintained a year after the end of the study.6

Mindfulness meditation can eliminate all kinds of stress. Here’s how…

For going stress, mindfulness helps you relearn how to be still while awake, helping you stop and set the stage for sleep.

For tangle stress, mindfulness teaches you how to see and untangle your tangles, or at least leave the tangled mess out in the kitchen until the next morning, so you can get a good night’s sleep.

For control stress, mindfulness is also learning to be patient and comfortable with allowing things to unfold in their own time, helping you become an expert at letting sleep happen.

For thinking stress, mindfulness cultivates the ability to choose the direction of your attention so you’ll be able to direct your thoughts away from stress at bed time.

For relationship stress, mindfulness helps you become more aware of tensions and stress in the relationships with those most important to you and begin to change the effect of contagious emotions on your sleep.

For regret and guilt stress, mindfulness encourages you to see your actions without judgment; this takes the sting out of them so you might have the ability to release the stress of these loops that can keep you from letting go into sleep.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeigarnik_effect
  2. Goleman D. Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. New York 2006: Bantam Books.
  3. http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20140203,00.html
  4. Gross C, Kreitzer M, Reilly-Spong M, Wall M, Winbush N, Patterson R, et al. Mindfulness-based stress reduction vs pharmacotherapy for primary chronic insomnia: A pilot randomized controlled clinical trial. Explore (NY) 2011;7:76-87.
  5. Ong J, Shapiro S, Manber R. Combining mindfulness meditation with cognitive-behavior therapy for insomnia: A treatment-development study. Behavior Therapy 2008;39:171-182.
  6. Ong J, Shapiro S, Manber R. Mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia: A naturalistic 12-month follow-up. Explore 2009;5:30-36.

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