Can Stress Make You Tired?

man looking tired in bed

Short answer: Yes!

Long answer:

Our bodies have this wonderful function called the “fight or flight” response. It’s regulated by the adrenal glands, and its intention is to equip our bodies for those extreme stress situations in which we must fight or flee. The adrenal glands release stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline to prepare us to react. That’s where we get the alertness, the tension, the rush of energy that lets us do things in high-stress situations of which we didn’t know we were capable.

It’s just as critical for diving off the starting blocks in a 50m butterfly sprint for the gold as it is slamming on the brakes to avoid rear ending that reckless driver who swerved into your lane on the freeway. These hormones elicit the immediate response that lets us react in an instant. These high-stress situations — whether emergencies or competitions — resolve quickly. Your heart rate goes back to its resting level and your adrenal glands get to rest.

The problem is prolonged, chronic stress. The adrenal glands can treat constant stress from work, relationships and other daily worries like a life-or-death situation, constantly releasing the stress hormones and overworking themselves. That’s what’s called adrenal fatigue. It’s a whole system of the body working overtime. It gets tired.

And it’s not just the glands themselves responding to stress that can make you tired. The long-term secretion of stress hormones are also damaging to our energy levels.

The adrenal glands release adrenaline to increase the heart rate, blood pressure, and energy to prepare the body for action. The adrenaline rush can save our lives in a dark alley. It can also cause substantial disruption to our sleep when we’re lying in bed and our bodies are preparing to do battle with an assailant.

Cortisol is one of those stress hormones and it’s gotten a bad rap due to its unintended effects from chronic stress. It’s meant to increase the glucose in the bloodstream so the brain has the supplies it needs to respond in an emergency. Cortisol suppresses bodily functions deemed nonessential during these emergencies, like the immunity, digestion, and reproductive systems. This laser focus on the response to the immediate stressor is what helps us achieve the “life” in “life or death” situation. Again, this is detrimental when it’s on all the time.

As you would assume, being constantly in a state of high alert can disrupt sleep. You may know that your already-heavy workload increasing due to your manager’s upcoming maternity leave is not a life or death situation. Your body doesn’t get that nuance. It’s preparing for a litany of emails like it was a hail of bullets.

All these hormones cause your body to be in a state of mental and physical alertness. Our muscles go under tension to do things like brace for a punch in the gut. When that response doesn’t shut off, it’s as exhausting to the body as holding a plank all day.

Our brains become hyper alert on the response to the stress, working to process the thoughts surrounding the emergency. Again, vital for your survival if you are in a fight to the death on the edge of a cliff. Not so useful when you’re sitting on the couch after a long day at the office.

Chronic stress makes our bodies’ react like we’re constantly under siege. Our adrenal glands and all the body systems that stress hormones affect are convinced that if they don’t shut off, we will die. And that’s an exhausting way to live.

So, can stress make you tired? As much as a never-ending car chase.

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