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Science of Sleep: Sleep is the most powerful antidote to work stress

"Sleep Health is the most powerful bridge from stress into resilience."

- Natalie Pennicotte-Collier

Better sleep, exercise and eating healthily can really help manage our stress levels, but in the midst of uncertain times, sleep can be a luxury hard to come by.

We’ve asked our resident Sleep Expert Natalie Pennicotte-Collier to talk us through how we can use sleep to provide vital support to our physical and emotional well-being.

Natalie is here with the science behind our sleep to explain how and why we all need to focus on sleep as we approach 2023.



Did you know that not paying attention to your sleep health can actually contribute to emotional stress levels within the brain? In fact, a lack of sleep may impair our ability to regulate emotions - just one sleepless night can trigger up to a 30% rise in emotional stress levels.*

The link between sleep and mood has been acknowledged time and time again by researchers, doctors and those dedicated to the sleep health profession. Poor sleep seems to put the brain on-guard by triggering spikes in stress hormones like cortisol, in some cases producing an early morning burst of anxiety even before the work day begins. Similarly, people with insomnia have greater levels of depression and anxiety than those who sleep normally, in fact they are 10 times as likely to have clinical depression and 17 times as likely to have clinical anxiety.

A recent panel even found that brain activity after periods of sleep deprivation mirrors activity indicative of anxiety disorders. The amygdala; an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain's medial temporal lobe and shown to play a key role in the processing of emotions, is particularly stimulated when we haven’t achieved enough sleep.*

Furthermore, lack of sleep can impact our physical health and mental agility. During the normal cycle of sleep, we spend about 20% of the time in REM; Rapid Eye Movement sleep; a unique phase of deep sleep. However disrupted sleep derails this cycle, causing negative consequences for memory, the nervous system and immune system.

If you’re experiencing stress in your life, chances are that you might be struggling to fall or stay asleep at night. Worries about life or work may keep your brain from settling down, and, in turn this disruption of sleep is likely to keep you feeling more on edge the next day, and inhibit your sleep pattern the following evening.


So what can we do during the day to prevent stress disrupting our sleep pattern? One aspect to consider is lighting.

Research carried out by the General Services Administration; the largest landlord in the USA tried to establish whether designing more daylight into buildings made any difference to the health of those working inside them. They assessed the mood and sleep of workers in three buildings that had been designed with daylight in mind, and one that hadn’t taken light into consideration at all.

Staggeringly, those exposed to bright morning light between 8am and noon took on average 18 minutes to fall asleep at night, compared to 45 minutes in the low light exposure group. They also slept around 20 minutes longer too!

Whilst it may not always be in your power to determine the lighting available in your office, try and spend breaks outdoors where possible to get access to natural light, or consider investing in a daylight lamp for your desk or working space.

Other ways to reduce stress in the workplace include meditation and workload management. By decluttering your to-do list and calming your mind, you can mitigate the impact of stressful events throughout the working day.

Exercise is another key element to reduction of workplace stress. This is especially important if you have a desk-based job. Even just a quick walk at lunchtime can help to diffuse tension and release endorphins – it’s worth seeing if there is a gym or wellness centre near your work environment, as a short class can make a big difference.

Below, Natalie has designed the ‘Ultimate Stress Reducer’ a robust list of practical things you can do to help combat stress and improve your sleep for good in 2020.



  • Get an adequate amount of sleep and move towards at least 7-8hrs. Sleeping recharges your brain and improves your focus, concentration, and mood.
  • Meditate. Focus on your breath. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply and visualize a serene environment of nature or recall a time you felt most calm and resilient. You can find our series of sleep meditations to help with stress and pressure here. https:///uk/sleep/meditations
  • Exercise. Regular exercise is good for your physical and mental health. It provides an outlet for frustrations and releases mood-enhancing endorphins. Yoga can be particularly effective at reducing anxiety and stress too – give it a go!
  • Prioritize your to-do list. Spend your time and energy on the tasks that are truly important, and break up large projects into smaller, more easily managed tasks. Delegate when you can.
  • Play music. Soft, calming music can lower your blood pressure and relax your mind and body.
  • Direct stress and anxiety elsewhere. Lend a hand to a relative or neighbour, or volunteer in your community. Helping others will take your mind off of your own anxiety and fears.
  • Talk to someone. Let friends and family know how they can help, and consider seeing a doctor or therapist.



Research links for stress & sleep

  • The findings, published, Nov. 4, 2019 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, provide one of the strongest neural links between sleep and anxiety to date.
  • (SOURCE Eti Ben Simon, Aubrey Rossi, Allison G. Harvey, Matthew P. Walker. Overanxious and underslept. Nature Human Behaviour, 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0754-8)
  • www.sfn.org/publications/latest-news/2018/11/06/di...
  • One study found that brains of participants who’d experienced even brief periods of sleep deprivation showed greater activity in a complex of “emotion-generating regions of the brain” and reduced activity in “emotion-regulating regions.”
  • They also suggest that sleep focused mental health therapies, such as MBCT-I and CBT therapies may be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of an even wider array of diseases and anxiety related disorders.