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Effect of Stress on Sleep

2573 words (10 pages) Essay in Psychology

08/02/20 Psychology Reference this

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I chose the event of being unable to fall asleep because it is a problem that most people go through on a daily basis, including myself. Given statistics show that more than 40 million Americans struggle with long-lasting sleep disarrays, which have long-term effects, while close to 20 million of the population report occasional sleep problems according to the National Institute of Health. Most people assume that simply lacking sleep or being unable to sleep at night is normal particularly to the elderly, but what they do not know is that it could be a psychological problem or a problem in a region of part of the brain. Also, sleep problems can be associated with stress and anxiety, which might act as the main cause or as factors that make the problem worse. Most sleep disorders are characterized by abnormal sleep, which is an interference with sleep patterns and factors such as mental, physical and emotional functioning. Stress has cognitive, emotional and biological factors, which are responsible for several causes of the psychological and physiological responses (Han et al., 2012, 146). This affects parts of the brain that are responsible for several of our funtions such as sleep. The physiological responses include the behavioral and neuro-endocrine, which affect the activity changes in Hypothalamo-Pituitiary-Adrenal axis. This is how stress is responsible for lack of sleep among other major brain functions.

Research Perspective

 The cytoarchitectonic approach of this topic  focuses on the area of the brain that is responsible for sleep and other related functions. My research was focused on finding out how exactly the brain works and the processes that are involved in the response system. Through this research, I discovered that there are neurons located in a particular part of the hypothalamus known as the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus or the VLPO, which connects the arousal promoting centers in various parts of the brain (Han et al., 2012, 146). Additionally, this part of the brain is responsible for the switch between wakefulness and sleep through the neurons that inhibit the relevant activities in areas of the brainstem. Other parts of the brain that are responsible in regulating states of arousal mainly sleep and wakefulness include the medulla oblongata. The medulla oblongata specifically deals with the control and regulation of the heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing, digestion and reticular activating systems. These systems are involved in processes and activities such as attention and arousal, which are also related to the control of reflexes, sleep and wakefulness.

An in-depth analysis into these processes and activities through the cytoarchitectonic approach revealed to me the hormone most related to sleep, which is melatonin. Melatonin is produced in the pineal gland located in the brain and responsible for regulating and controlling sleep cycles. Additionally, this hormone gives the body what is perceived as an  inner peace or tranquility we experience at times (Han et al., 2012, 146). Through this, the hormone plays an instrumental role in the body in signaling time, for example day, night or year, which in actual sense helps to regulate the body’s internal clock. Other neurotransmitters that are closely related to melatonin and  that work closely with this hormone around sleep include norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine and histamine. In relation to this, I made my own conclusion, which showed that falling asleep starts from the molecular level with a neurotransmitteror, a chemical reaction that takes place on the nerve cells located in the brain by sending the signal to the body informing it that it should sleep or be awake. At this stage, the nerve cells acts by switching off the signals that act to keep an individual awake.

Stress affects the imbalance between sleep and wakefulness through hyperarousal and insomnia. The brain chemicals connected with sleep happens to be the same that are responsible in stopping  stress hormone production. Therefore, in the process, several factors happen to affect the sleep mechanism in relation to brain structural and dimensional changes. A study conducted at the University of California reveals that stress has an impact on the brain through the creation of myelin producing cells, which in turn hinders the production of  neurons (Turcotte & Bastien, 2009). The increase of myelin in one part of the brain interferes with balance and timing of communication relaying. To be precise, I concentrated my study on how the brain’s hippocampus is affected by stress. Further research showed that prolonged stress can affect this structure of the brain and in the process affect its functioning. When the structure of the brain is affected, several functions are disoriented, which can also include sleep. Additionally, I found out that stress kills new neurons in the brain’s hippocampus, and according to earlier revelations, this is the part that controls the relaying of information and the clock system of the brain. With a reduced number of neurons in the brain, information transmission is definitely hindered or might not reach its destination on time. This explains as to why most people experiencing stress have a problem falling asleep during the night.

Ontogenetic Approach

I shifted my focus to the ontogenetic approach, which borrows heavily from ecological concepts of mammalian development.  The ontogenetic approach tends to study us from its origination usually time of fertilization to maturity or even old age. This approach is important in the study because it will give a distinctive approach to the scope through analyzing the effects of age in stress and brain development and the inability to fall asleep during the night. Additionally, the approach will give a clear picture of how and why human sleep differs in today’s life compared to other human evolutions. Apparently, sleep problems affects all populations, but the majority of the victims undergoing the problem are adults and the elderly. According to my own thoughts, this might be due to the fact that sleep inability develops over time in the human lifespan. Additionally, sleep formation in the brain is complex and involves a number of procedures, with great ability to coordinate (Nunn et al., 2016, 235). The ontogenetic perspective states that sleep in humans has evolved over time to include factors that create a diofference when compared to their ancestors and other primates (Nunn et al., 2016, 235). Biologically, human beings have the highest rapid eye movement sleep compared to other primates. Other perspectives from the evolutionary studies have revealed the context of insomnia and narcolepsy among other health complications and their implications in sleep and overall human health.

My other focus is diverted to the patterns and structures of sleep relative to other beings in the same lineage. This also focused on the ways human beings differ from the closest evolutionary relatives, more specifically the preceding generations and infants. In a bid to understand sleeping patterns, I began by considering other mammals through seeking knowledge of their environment. In this context, I found that most primates were arboreal and this probably made them to adopt nocturnal and solitary characteristic. As primates increased in body size, the evolution of diurnal activity patterns emerged, leading to a shift to living in larger groups. This also changed the sleeping sites and patterns because the primates started to sleep on the trees, which required them to be cautious due to the dangers that were involved.

Through my research, I realized that the major evolutionary transition that took place in terms of sleep must have involved the chimpanzees, gorillas and eventually humans. The emergence of more stable sleeping platforms in mammals made it possible for them to acquire and maintain a long and deep sleep. This was so because the new sleeping sites provided more physical support for the body for good rest, hence the ability to enhance cognitive functioning (Yang et al., 2007, 588). Reasonably, this presented  primates with a good sleeping opportunity and time for a prolonged and restful sleep for the development of their brains. Several factors contributed to the quality of sleep in the human ancestry lineages. One of these factors was body mass, which played a key role in sleeping platforms among the apes. Additionally,body mass favored more resilient platforms that reduced physical stressors and enabled higher quality sleep.

The modern human concept of sleep has undergone various changes, as compared to other primates particularly in key features. One of the features is where or the place we sleep, which compared to primates, shows that we have an advantage to enjoy a more quality sleep because our sleeping sites are more stable andsecure. However, due to human activities that have evolved over time, many do not find enough time and convenience to sleep well. Also, we have the flexibility to control the time and place for our sleep as compared to primates and their ancestors, who could only consider night time as sleeping time. Also, as people advance in age, their activities and brain engagement tends to raise their levels of stress and hence affect their quality of sleep. Another perception premises its thought on the fact that cognitive abilities advances as we develop over time(Tumbull et al., 2013, 1081). The human brain develops in sequences with the less complex parts developing first, followed by the complex parts, which fully develop in adulthood. From this perspective, I think this is the reason why infants have a quality sleep compared to the elderly people who on the other hand, report higher levels of inability to fall asleep in the night.

Behavioral Approach

The cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is called the CBT-I, and is considered as the most effective treatment for sleep issues. Behavioral sleeplessness presents a night awakening problem that results in insufficient sleep. In this condition, the patient has only learned to fall asleep under given conditions. Also, patients experiencing this problem might have a sleep association, which must be used to arouse them so that they can fall asleep. This condition is highly associated with younger children and infants, usually caused by factors such as obstruction, poor sleep habits and due to side effects of medications(Turnbill et al.,2013, 1081). The cases are not very prevalent in adults, but few experience the same under causes such as the prolonged us eof stimulants such as antidepressants, corticosteroids and anticonvulsants. There are so many aspects related to sleplessnes more so to children, and the include inadequate parental limit setting, sleep disturbances, psychophysiologic factors such as conditioning and disturbances. Unlike other approaches, this one has ready and effective inteventions, which are behavioral in nature such as routine change and positive reinforcements.

Research Methods

Psychophysiological Methods

This is the procedure in brain sleep disorders, which is used to study the attention rate and emotional well being of the brain in response to stimuli. This procedure is mainly performed to gain a better understanding of the cognitive processes. From the study conducted by Bastien et al, 2008, there are signs of bigger cortical stimulation in psychophysiological sleeplessness people more so in the morning upon waking up. From the study, it is also evident that insomnia patients who received cortical stimulation from sleep related motivations were faced with sleep problems (Bastien et al., 2008, 892). The research engaged good sleepers and insomnia participants who were used to give different results for clear comparisons. The study also used materials such as sleep diaries and interviews of insomnia patients. In the research, they used data analysis and statistical analysis methods, with the aim of establishing the result of habituated arousal or the incapability to have a normal sleep process as a result of chronic insomnia.

Modern Imaging

Modern imaging is among the  most popular methods for studying brain processes. Most studies have used the MRI to examine if sleep disorders are linked with given alterations in the brain. The study by Desseilles et al, engaged the procedure in finding out the functional brain and the pathophysiology in adult sleep disorders. The study used the quantitative methods such as the EEG recordings to confirm the Cortical Hyperarousal insomnia characterized by an increase in beta/gamma activity (Desseilles et al., 2008, 783). Through this method, insomnia could arise from the central cervous system. The study is unique because it assesses the neuroanatomy of idiopathic insomnia disorder by recording the activity of the brain.  The study found out that there is no significant regional increase in NREM sleep, but only a reduced blood flow (Desseilles et al., 2008, 783). The study showed us that depression and insomnia are related and are characterized by activity across several regions of the brain.


My research findings were not only interesting, but also educative to me. First, the brain processes that are involved in sleep are complex and sophisticated  for what most think of as the simple process of sleep. Neurons in the brain’s hypothalamus or the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus are directly connected to the arousal-promoting centers. These centers are responsible for the signal transmission to the brain dictating sleep or awake. It is also amazing that there are several other parts of the brain that control  brain sleep functions. These areas include the medulla oblongata, which performs functions that are indirectly related to sleep such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure and digestion. Through these processes, the brain is supplied with enough oxygen for its neurons to relay information concerning sleep and awake. Another emerging point is the fact that the brain has its own clock, which it uses for the sleep wake rhythms. Through this process, I noticed that light  helps in resetting the sleep wake cycle to a 24 hour system. It is also evident that the hormone melatonin formed by the pineal gland is usually produced in the dark and its secretion is inhibited by light. This seems like magic but it is a normal biological function and another amazing feat of the human body and brain most importantly.


  • Bastien, C. H., St-Jean, G., Morin, C. M., Turcotte, I.,& Carrier, J. (2008). Chronic Psychophysiological Insomnia: Hyperarousal and/or Inhibition Deficits? An ERPs investigation. Sleep31(6), 887-898.
  • Desseilles, M., Dang-Vu, T., Schabus, M., Sterpenich, V., Maquet, P., & Schwartz, S. (2008). Neuroimaging Insights into the Pathophysiology of sleep Disorders. Sleep31(6), 777-794.
  • Han, K. S., Kim, L., & Shim, I. (2012). Stress and Sleep Disorder. Experimental neurobiology, 21(4), 141-150.
  • Nunn, C. L., Samson, D. R., & Krystal, A. D. (2016). Shining Evolutionary Light on Human Sleep and Sleep Disorders. Evolution, medicine, and public health, 2016(1), 227-243.
  • Turcotte, I., & Bastien, C. H. (2009). Is Quality of Sleep Related to the N1 and P2 ERPs in Chronic Psychophysiological insomnia sufferers?. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 72(3), 314-322.
  • Turnbull, K., Reid, G. J., & Morton, J. B. (2013). Behavioral Sleep Problems and their Potential Impact on Developing executive Function in Children. Sleep36(7), 1077-1084.
  • Yang, C. M., & Lo, H. S. (2007). ERP Evidence of Enhanced Excitatory and Reduced Inhibitory Processes of Auditory Stimuli During Sleep in Patients with Primary Insomnia. Sleep30(5), 585-592.
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