Why is it that some nights you can be sleeping seemingly peacefully, when you're suddenly pulled from your slumber by a stressful thought?
Turns out that middle-of-the-night stress is having a major impact on our sleep, with experts pinpointing that the most stressful time of the day is actually 4.44am.
The sleep experts at Mattress Online conducted research to find out when sleepless Brits are most likely to search for stress-related symptoms, with 4.44am pinpointed to be the moment of peak stress.
Through analysing Google searches over a 7-day period, the brand found that stress-related searches are most popular in the early hours of the morning, suggesting we’re turning to our phones in the early hours to remedy our restlessness.
But how is it that the worries rolling around your head while you're awake, can also permeate your sleep?
Lisa Artis, deputy CEO of The Sleep Charity, says stress causes something known as hyperarousal, which can upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness.
“There is a direct link between anxiety and the rhythm of sleep," she explains. "When a person has anxious thoughts, their heart rate goes up and in turn the mind starts to ‘race’. This causes the brain to become alert and stimulated, and it starts producing beta waves."
Artis says this happens to someone who worries about something when they’re trying to get to sleep – instead of being calm and subdued, their brain becomes too aroused to sleep.
“To make matters worse, once the brain is stimulated in this way, other worries are activated, making sleep even harder to achieve," she continues. "This can then create a pattern where getting to sleep becomes a source of anxiety.”
Turns out there's quite a lot going on inside our brains when we're shunted from our slumber by stress.
“Stress can cause a fight or flight response, which increases our breathing rate, heartbeat and the production of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline," Artis explains.
"Mental awareness is heightened and blood rushes to the muscles, meaning the body is on alert ready to deal with the crisis."
And it seems prolonged stress can have an adverse effect on sleep, with anxiety and depression two major factors in sleep disruption.
“Brain chemicals, that are connected to slow wave sleep, signal to the body to stop producing stress hormones, so poor sleep at night causes the body to boost its levels of stress hormones," Artis explains.
"The knock-on effect is that you feel more stressed the next day and then may find it harder to fall asleep the next night."
Artis says one of the major causes of stress is information overload.
"We need sleep to allow us to process the information from the day," she explains. "If we don’t get good sleep, then it is easy to be overwhelmed and to experience stress as our bodies haven’t fully processed the information we have taken in.”
Why does stress wake you up?
It's clear stress can have a major impact on stopping us getting to sleep, but once you've actually managed to nod off, it can also wake you up.
“Sleep is punctuated with brief awakenings.” Artis explains. “As we go through the night, we spend more time in lighter sleep which is why brief awakenings can feel more pronounced and why many of us wake up with stress or anxiety in the latter part of the night."
Believe it or not the brain doesn’t switch off during sleep so worry or stress may manifest itself during the night as your mind is racing.
"This can lead to middle-of-the-night insomnia (sleep maintenance insomnia). Again, you will experience an increased heart rate and higher blood pressure, and these changes within the body make it difficult to fall back asleep.”
Watch: The average person takes this long to fall asleep.
Artis says the stress-induced wake ups can lead to something of a vicious cycle.
“The more we don’t sleep because of stress, the more stressed and anxious we become," she explains. "This can create a vicious cycle where we simply don’t know how to stop this new routine of poor sleep."
The good news is there are some things you can try to help stop stress-induced wake-ups.
Write down your worries
Sometimes unburdening your thoughts can lift a huge weight off your shoulders, so Artis suggests writing down what is worrying you or even talking through your issues with someone.
“Quite often, we start worrying in an evening about the things we have to do tomorrow – whether that’s work worries, bills that need paying or even the next food shop," she explains.
“Writing down your worries, or even creating a to-do list, can be very therapeutic and calming for the mind.
Think yourself calmer
According to Artis your final thoughts at night should be good ones. "Try to visualise yourself in your favourite place – happy thoughts really do promote happy, relaxed dreams," she says.
While it is easier said than done, Artis also suggests trying to relax more.
“People lead such busy lives these days and we often don’t recognise the pace we are continuously going at. Meditation is a great tool for relaxing both body and mind.
“Some may prefer to use guided meditation, and mindfulness apps like Headspace, or just a little white noise, can help us to feel calm. Do what makes you feel good," she adds.
Stick to a bedtime routine
According to Artis taking time to wind down before bed, to drop your heart rate by doing things that relax you, is fundamental to sleeping well.
“Always try to stick to regular bedtime hours," she suggests. "Make sure your bedroom environment is right for sleep and unwind properly."
In the run up to bedtime, Artis suggests dimming the lighting in your room. "When we start to turn down lights, our melatonin levels start to increase – this is the hormone we need to feel sleepy," she explains.
"Avoid using harsh, bright light in an evening, softer lighter or lamps are ideal in setting the scene for good sleep."
Lighting a scented candle may also improve your sleep environment.
“Candles also create an appealing ambience and if you pick a calming scent it can help to shift your mood too," Artis adds. "Lavender is one of the most well-known scents for promoting relaxation and releasing tension, but be sure to blow them out before you get into bed."
Don't stress about not sleeping
According to Artis it can be easy to fall into bad bedtime habits. "As soon as you start to clock the time and start worrying about having to get up in another three hours, that’s when the anxiety sets in and prevents us from being able to fall asleep," she explains.
“If you can’t get back to sleep within 20 minutes, get up and go do something relaxing – relaxation techniques, reading or making a milky drink, in low lighting.
“Staying in bed awake decreases our sleep efficiency meaning we associate the bed with activities such as being awake, planning and worrying, so you may begin to struggle to feel calm and relaxed and ready for sleep."
Seek help from the sleep experts
"Sleep education is empowering," says Artis. "It helps you to understand why you might not be sleeping well and how that can change."
If you are struggling with sleep, The Sleep Charity has its own dedicated Sleep Helpline, a confidential nationwide service available between 7pm and 9pm, Sunday to Thursday.