Have you noticed how sometimes you can do nothing else but sleep in cases of stress? Stress is incredibly hard to avoid these days. We live in a society where stress has become so common that it’s one of the main “killers”. Some people respond to stress by falling asleep and it’s not by will. The sleepiness is completely out of their control and triggered by immense stress.
As we all know from biology classes, stress puts our bodies into fight-or-flight mode. It’s an automatic reaction during which the adrenal cortex releases a flood of stress hormones which make the heart beat faster, makes you breathe faster and revs up your metabolism while oxygen-rich blood gets pumped into the major muscle groups. In this way, the body gets primed for facing the threat head-on or to run away if required.
The human body’s reaction to stress is completely normal. However, put your body in a constant fight-or-flight mode and your neurochemistry will be thrown out of balance, resulting in anxiety, irritability, sleepiness and even depression. The high alertness of the body during stress is actually a good thing, but some people are not pumped when stressed – they’re sleepy instead. There are thousands of people that react to stress in this way, wondering if there’s anything wrong with them. Luckily, there isn’t.
Learned helplessness is a concept in psychology that explains some aspects of anxiety and depression. It’s an old concept developed over 40-50 years ago and is still accepted by psychologists. The name explains the concept perfectly – all living things will understand they’re helpless against nature’s forces at some point in their lives. This will eventually lead to lack of control and become helpless against everything, no matter the context.
Early studies on learned helplessness studied 2 groups of dogs. One was subjected to electric shocks which they could stop by themselves once they learned how. The second were not so lucky – they had no way of stopping the shocks by themselves. The long-term effects of the studies had a significant impact on the dogs – the first dealt with any kind of stress in any way they could, while the second simply gave up. This type of learned helplessness isn’t exclusive to animals – in fact, it has been associated with childhood anxiety in many adults. It’s a coping mechanism that allows these people to deal with stress by sleeping or simply shutting the door.
As Dr. John Sharp says, as adults we should have complete control over any situation, yet most of us don’t. This means that we may have been shocked into helplessness at an early point of our life.
Is Sleepiness Avoidance?
At first glance, some may say that sleeping in cases of stress is actually avoidance or burying your head in the sand. Sleeping doesn’t resolve the problem – it only delays it. When you go to bed during a fight, there’s still a lot going on behind the scenes. Things won’t sort themselves out while you sleep, and by going to bed you may even make things worse. You know how memory works – we create one, the brain stores it and we retrieve it when we need it. However, there’s a step known as memory consolidation we’re missing here, and that’s where sleep comes in.
According to Dr. Edward Pace-Schott from Harvard’s School of Medicine, when we create a memory, it’s temporarily stored in the brain short-term storage. Down there, it’s very fragile and easily forgotten when you create a more meaningful memory. In order to become a fully-fledged memory, the brain needs to consolidate that moment, integrating it with other memories you have. This occurs so we don’t remember bits and pieces from that experience, but a complete recollection of events.
Now, not all experiences are worth remembering. The brain actually stores the most intense positive and negative memories, which is controlled by our emotions. There’s a limit even to the human brain’s memory storage – after all, it’s better to remember your wife’s birthday than what color your boss’s shirt was on Wednesday. If our memories aren’t stored and consolidated properly, they would be a mess and the brain would be forced to forget. Living a life without memories doesn’t sound nice, right? We would never learn anything in this way, making us easy prey.
Now, here’s the interesting part about memory consolidation – the emotionally important memories can engulf the brain’s short-term storage. More and more positive and negative experiences will create new memories which will overload your brain, resulting in the need for relaxation and the sleepiness in cases of stress.
The bad news is that by sleeping you’re actually enhancing the negative memory experience and “stamping” it with emotion. As a matter of face, Pace-Schott says that keeping people awake during a stressful event will actually help them overcome the problem later on. Many psychologists such as Dr. Rebecca Spenser from the University of Massachusetts agree with Dr. Pace-Schott view.
On the other hand, disrupting sleep will prevent proper memory consolidation of therapeutic memories. These memories can lessen the blow of traumatic experiences by creating positive associations with certain triggers, which means that improving your sleep after a period of stress or a traumatic experience can help prevent PTSD.
You know how kids nap every couple of hours? There’s a reason for it. According to scientists, kids have a tiny memory capacity, so their brain needs to unload experiences fast in order to make room for new memories. It’s an essential process which helps them learn what they can or can’t do. Naps after fights or traumatic experiences work in similar fashion – they allow you to deal with interpersonal conflict while helping your brain consolidate important memories.
When we wake up from sleeping, we’re different. The body and brain have gone through a chemical response which helped them relax. This is why sleeping after a stressful event makes the sickness in your stomach and the anxiety go away. The key to the puzzle may lie in a chemical known as orexin. Orexin is a brain chemical which was discovered only 15 years ago. It plays an essential role in our circadian rhythm – it’s levels are low before you go to sleep and high when you wake up. Take the chemical away and you won’t be able to control your sleep\wake cycle. Orexin is now one of the main diagnostic criteria for determining narcolepsy, with studies discovering that people suffering from the disorders have almost no orexin in their bodies.
“The orexin system is hardwired into our body’s nervous system,” Dr. Philip L. Johnson from Indiana University School of Medicine says. “When everything works as it should and you’re facing a stressful event, the orexin system is triggered and puts the body in a fight-or-flight mode.” In short terms, the body’s wakefulness neural pathway also controls our stress response. It may sound contra-intuitive, but our emotions are connected to an onset of sleepiness, which is why narcoleptics nod off when facing stress.
So, if you’re nodding off when fighting with your wife, there’s nothing wrong with you. The problem probably won’t be resolved while you sleep, but hopefully, you’ll get a better look at it when you wake up.