Dr. Amy Wolkin is a physical therapist based in Atlanta, GA. After graduating from Wellesley College in 2012, she pursued dual graduate degrees at Emory University. She graduated in 2017 with her Master of Business Administration and Doctor of Physical Therapy degrees. Her clinical interests are outpatient orthopedics, women’s health, and pediatric sports medicine. She has advanced training in dry needling and pelvic floor physical therapy.
Medically Reviewed by Amy Wolkin, DPT, MBA

Stress and crises

Stress is highly volatile and impactful on both the amount of sleep an individual gets, and the quality of their sleep. In order to have a restful night with the recommended number of hours for a person’s age and physiological condition, it’s important to keep stress under control. Stresses can be external (losing a home, world events like COVID-19, troubles at work, worries about family members) or internal (mental illness, physical illness, medical procedures, etc.) Not to mention, the comfort level in which you sleep can play a big role as well. More often than not, stress and lack of sleep have a compound effect; when you worry you will not sleep enough, it keeps you awake and keeping awake can cause you to worry. If you’re unable to learn how to cope with stress, it can spiral into a significant problem.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines crisis as “a time of great disagreement, confusion, or suffering; an extremely difficult or dangerous point in a situation.” Accordingly, in times of crisis, it’s not uncommon to experience overwhelming emotions.

Let’s look at some of the most common types of crises and their effects

  • Losing a Home — instability of one’s living space has a tremendous effect on our basic human need for safety, and can insight a “fight or flight” type of fear. Homelessness is the lack of our most basic human need for shelter, which can make those with existing mental health concerns or disabilities even more vulnerable. Homeless people report significantly higher amounts of stress than other people.
  • World Events — worrying over the hundreds of thousands affected by COVID-19 and worrying you or your loved ones will fall victim to the disease, particularly when there is little known about the condition and its long term effects. Turning on the news provides people with enough worry to potentially trigger a crisis of fear, not to mention those whose family may be immune-susceptible.
  • Financial Worries/Troubles at Work — this is also a basic human need that relies on feeling valued in your current position in order to maintain and grow the lifestyle and security you and your family need. When the means to feed and home yourself are jeopardized, it’s hard to focus on anything else.
  • Mental health many sleep disorders are related to mental health. Insomnia may be treated with therapy, with particularly positive responses found in cognitive behavioral therapy.  
  • Physical health — pain from surgeries or physiological conditions can very easily and often keep the afflicted up at night.

How does the average, adult human body react to and with a crisis? 

  • Headaches and migraines — Your body can tense up your muscles when you are stressed, which leads to aches, pains, migraines, and headaches.
  • Depression and Anxiety — A crisis can cause serious changes to your mood, which can lead to certain anxiety disorders, and in some cases, depression. 
  • Heart problems — Over time, high stress levels can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, which can lead to some serious health problems such as a stroke and or heart attack. 
  • Upset stomach — Stress can cause stomach aches, diarrhea, or vomiting. Over time, it can even lead to Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
  • Obesity — When you’re stressed your body increases its cortisol levels, a hormone that can lead to overeating and cause you to gain weight.
  • Problems conceiving Women trying to conceive might have a more difficult time when feeling high levels of stress. As a result, the problems conceiving can become a source of stress, even for men.
  • Menstrual cycle problemsWomen who experience chronic stress may have irregular periods and more severe PMS symptoms. 
  • Loss of sex drive — People in crisis may take longer to get in the mood and may have a lower libido than those who are not experiencing a crisis. When in crisis, it can be difficult to take your mind off the problems at hand. 

How to Regain Control of Your Sleep

You know how when you fly, the flight attendants always give the FAA- mandated speech about safety? One thing they always say is, in an emergency, put your mask on first before helping others. As a counter to our impulses as it may seem, we need to help ourselves before we can fully help others with a clear mindset and intentions. That is what we must do in a crisis — help ourselves first. We can do that by taking the proper steps when in crisis.

It’s also recommended that you talk to someone. Whether it is with a therapist, a professional over ahotline, a financial advisor, or a trusted friend, it is vital to remind yourself that you are not alone and there is help. People have an intrinsic need to help others in their community. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and remember others have been in similar situations to yours. Who do you know that you could talk to?

Is there a story you could look up and read online, right now, that would make you feel less alone? 

Write down how you are feeling, and why you might be experiencing those feelings. Then, look at the why and break it down into actionable goals. Often, a crisis seems to be the elephant in the room, but it turns out only we can see the elephant. Breaking it down into separate parts can make a crisis seem far less scary. Such steps can get to the basis of your issues with sleep.

Finding the root of your sleep problems is imperative. There are a lot of smaller tips to get better sleep, but if you don’t address the root cause, it may never get better. Anxiety and stress are very common reasons why people toss and turn at night. It can lead to insomnia if the root causes are not sussed out.

A lack of sleep can lead to sleepiness during waking hours and a general loss of energy. It also can make you feel depressed, irritable, or anxious. You may have some trouble learning, remembering things, focusing on things you need to complete, and problems paying attention to anything. For example, it could make you feel sleepy while driving — which is certainly very dangerous. Higher cortisol levels from stress can lead to heart problems and obesity. Compounded with lack of rest and it becomes a vicious spiral. But there is help. There is always help!

Finding normalcy (or a new normal) is hardly ever done alone. Reaching out to a mental health professional can help you process and explore the causes of sleep-related issues. A medical professional can also rule out any other causes, like apnea or an irregular heartbeat. 

If you speak about your issues with family and friends, they may be able to help lead you to the experts you need. They can also reinforce the emotional safety net humans need to feel less stressed by being there for you, and offering words of encouragement. In the meantime, create a healthy routine for your days. A well-balanced life schedule is key to maintaining both your physical and mental well-being. 

The Bottom Line

Regardless of how difficult it might seem, almost anyone can turn their sleep habits around — even in times of significant stress. No one is truly alone in a crisis. There are multiple ways to try to get a better night’s sleep during a crisis; from speaking to a professional, having a comfortable, dark sleeping environment, to practicing a relaxing daily routine. Just do not lose hope. Good sleep is vital to both a healthy life and mindset. You deserve every chance to see your bed as a place of relaxation, not a battleground. 

Additional Resources

Homelessness Resources:

Financial Crisis Resources:

Addiction/Recovery Resources:

Other Resources: