Why do I get sleepy when I'm stressed?

Hi Alice,

Whenever I am in a very stressful situation such as an approaching big deadline, my body gets unusually tired and sleepy regardless of how much rest I get. I sleep well but it never seems to be enough. Why do I get so sleepy and what can I do to prevent this change when stressful situations approach?

Dear Reader, 

Most people are used to getting tired in certain situations, such as at the end of a long day, after exerting increased energy, or when traveling. As you've mentioned, some also experience sleepiness in the face of stressful situations! The good news is that there's research to suggest why this might happen and what can be done about it. 

What you’re experiencing may be due to the hormones that are released into the body during a stress response. As for how to avoid this, managing stress to reduce the stress response in the body may be your best bet. Stress is something that's often associated with feelings of restlessness; however, it can also be associated with sleepiness too. The body can experience sleepiness after going into "fight, flight, or freeze" mode when encountering a stressful situation. This is an automatic physiological response the nervous system produces as a survival mechanism. 

When encountering a stressor or threat, the nervous system works to produce additional cortisol and other hormones like adrenaline. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone and is needed for the "fight, flight, or freeze" response. Increased cortisol levels can lead to physical symptoms such as an elevated heart rate, quickened breathing patterns, and flushed skin. Once the stressor is gone, the body lowers the cortisol and other hormone levels. This depletion can lead to exhaustion or sleepiness. The "fight, flight, or freeze" response was helpful for human survival back in the day, but nowadays can cause bodies to overreact to stressors that are non-life-threatening (i.e., work deadlines, relationship issues, schoolwork). 

You mention being sleepy regardless of how much rest you get. While sleeping and napping are a natural response to tiredness, using them as your only stress management tool can be counterproductive. If you're using sleep to avoid your stressors, it'll only provide a temporary solution. This is because you're not addressing the root problem of your stress. 

You also mention that you sleep well. It's possible that even if you're sleeping enough hours, it may not be the high-quality sleep you need to feel rested. Stress and anxiety can make sleep more challenging, leaving you exhausted during the day. Consider reading the Go Ask Alice! fact sheet on Healthy Sleep Habits to understand more about what you may or may not be doing to foster good quality sleep. 

While a great deal of research exists explaining why people may get sleepy in response to stress, little is known about how to directly prevent sleepiness. Identifying strategies for reducing stress may reduce your likelihood of feeling sleepy. You may consider activities such as meditation, physical activity, journaling, and relaxation techniques helpful. You may also consider evaluating your responsibilities to see if there are any that cause you stress that you can cut or reduce. 

If you've tried these strategies before, or you find that they don't work for you, you may consider speaking with someone such as a mental health professional, friends, or family about the stress you're experiencing and your body's subsequent response. 

Here's to meeting deadlines and decreasing stress and sleepiness! 

Last updated Nov 17, 2023
Originally published Aug 30, 2013

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