Hyperarousal is a 24-hour state of physical and mental tension. If you’ve not experienced hyperarousal before, the best way to describe how it feels is to compare it to the "fight or flight" response you feel when you are in danger or facing a stressful situation.
This state of elevated tension makes it hard to relax, fall asleep, and stay asleep — so perhaps it’s no surprise that hyperarousal has been recognized as a risk factor for developing insomnia.
How does stress affect your sleep?
Sleep reactivity is the term used to describe the extent to which sleep is affected by stressful events — and high sleep reactivity has been linked to a higher risk for insomnia. With that being said, we still don’t fully understand how hyperarousal and sleep reactivity affect insomnia severity, particularly as we age. This prompted researchers to investigate this relationship. Their study was published in 2017 in the journal Brain Sciences.
The study involved 1,693 Canadian adults. All participants were between the ages of 25 and 55, with this age range chosen since researchers determined they were more likely to have a regular lifestyle and sleep-wake rhythm, and experience fewer health-related problems that can disrupt sleep.
Insomnia severity was measured using the French-Canadian version of the Insomnia Severity Index, arousal was measured using the Arousal Predisposition Scale, and sleep reactivity was measured using the Ford Insomnia Response to Stress Test. Researchers also asked participants about their use of sleeping pills.
How arousal and stress influences sleep quality
Researchers found that those with high arousal scores had significantly higher scores on the Insomnia Severity Index compared to participants with lower arousal scores.
Similarly, those with high sleep reactivity scores reported significantly higher insomnia severity compared to those with low sleep reactivity scores.
Interestingly, researchers found that arousal scores were significantly lower with increasing age. Participants between the ages of 45-55 had significantly lower arousal scores compared to those between 25-35. Although hyperarousal symptoms decreased with age, sleep reactivity remained the same across all age groups.
How to improve sleep affected by hyperarousal
These results led researchers to suggest that focusing on reducing stress and improving emotion coping during the day may reduce sleep-disrupting events during the night. As the authors of the study pointed out, research has shown that stress coping strategies can reduce insomnia risk during times of stress.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia has been linked to a reduction in sleep reactivity, meaning that this treatment option can help reduce the effect of stressful events on sleep.
Studies have also found that the thoughts and beliefs we have towards sleep can have a big influence on sleep quality. Working to fix incorrect sleep thoughts and beliefs can help to further improve sleep affected by stress and hyperarousal.