Sleep Reactivity: The Problem I Didn’t Know I Had
Last updated: June 2023
After writing an article about how quickly a change in routine could trigger my insomnia, I started reading more about the trait that researchers call "sleep reactivity.”
Once I learned that it described a relationship between insomnia and stress, I knew it would be relevant to me.
What is sleep reactivity?
Sleep reactivity is the degree to which stressful situations impair sleep. All of us have sleep reactivity to some extent; everyone has experienced a poor night’s sleep the night before a stressful presentation or appointment. But those of us with high sleep reactivity tend to have more extreme sleep-related difficulties when faced with stress.
In fact, sleep reactivity appears to be a trait; that is, disruptions in sleep related to stress are fairly consistent over time and situations.1
Why do I have high sleep reactivity?
At least some of our sleep reactivity is genetically influenced. So if you have close family members whose sleep gets highly disrupted by stress, you’re more likely to as well. That’s not so different from having a genetic predisposition to poor eyesight or heart disease. Like it or not, we’re all genetically loaded for something.
Physical reactions to stress
Sleep reactivity also seems connected to physical hyperarousal, or having physical reactions (muscle tension, heart racing, etc.) to stress. Those of us with high sleep reactivity may have an overactive sympathetic nervous system (the neurobiological system that responds to potential danger and stress). As a result, stress may easily trigger an intense physical response, and those physical symptoms can last a long time. Of course, physical tension makes it more difficult to sleep.
Finally, the way we think about things (and where and when) also influences our sleep reactivity. Are you someone who ruminates about your stressors? Do you worry about your upcoming day as you’re lying in bed? If so, you are more likely to have high sleep reactivity.
What can I do about it?
Unfortunately, some risk factors for sleep reactivity can't be changed. It isn’t fair that I am genetically loaded for sleep reactivity. But aside from complaining about it and blaming my parents, there’s not much I can do about it. I also can’t dig into my brain and physically reboot my sympathetic nervous system.
Fortunately, there are things I can do to affect change in other ways.
For one, practicing relaxation strategies should help reduce the activity of my sympathetic nervous system (and engage its relaxation-promoting sibling, the parasympathetic nervous system). And that’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Any relaxation strategy – deep breathing, mindfulness practice, listening to calming music – should help.
Protecting my wind-down routine
I can also be mindful about where and when I try to problem-solve challenging situations. Planning and worrying in bed should be avoided, lest my brain starts linking my bed with worry. It is also important to not engage in planning or problem-solving in the last hour or so before bed. The best wind-down routines involve relaxing and mentally preparing for bed, so I finish up any to-do lists or planning for the next day at least an hour before bedtime. Then I switch my focus to something pleasant or soothing, like a sitcom or soft music.
As with most things, understanding the problem is the first step to addressing it. If you think you struggle with high sleep reactivity, let us know in the comments below.
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