Is This Normal? “I Feel Sleepy When I’m Stressed”
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
A deadline is looming closer? I start yawning. A fight with a friend is dragging on? My eyes start drooping. A crisis in the family? I’m asleep. For me, any feeling of stress directly translates to drowsiness and an intense desire to lay down, hide beneath heavy blankets, and zone out. Sometimes, it’s an escape from a really terrible, sinking feeling; other times, it’s an attempt to clear my head in hopes I will be better equipped to deal with the stressor when I’m back up.
Needless to say, my association between stress and sleepiness is incredibly crippling, potentially annoying, bordering on escapism. But is it normal?
The occurrence of uncontrollable, stressful events in an individual’s childhood can “significantly debilitate” them, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s department of psychiatry and psychology. These events “produce passivity in the face of trauma, inability to learn that responding is effective,” which can lead to developing anxiety and depression in adulthood. This manifestation of sleepiness as part of the stress response is a form of “learned helplessness,” in which if, as a child, an individual was repeatedly stuck in helpless situations, as an adult, even with tools to get out of the situation, the individual would be rendered helpless.
Learned helplessness has roots in how memories are stored within the brain — all experiences are first stored in the brain’s short-term storage area, where they can be easily processed and replaced with new, more important experiences. But any experience that invokes a lot of emotion needs time and space to be processed, which can overwhelm the brain’s storage capacity, Dr. Rebecca Spencer, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Department of Psychology, tells the Atlantic. “You can be driven to sleep simply by having a lot of emotional memories to process,” Spencer says. Studies show sleep helps process and also store away emotional memories for longer-term.
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This learned helplessness kicks in outside of the binary we impose upon stress responses — it’s neither fight or flight. There are numerous other ways to respond to stresses, clinical psychologist, Dr. Curtis Reisinger, tells the Cut. “There’s also a freeze response — sort of like a deer in the headlights, they get stunned”; “A similar one is flooding, where the person gets flooded with emotions”; a third one is called the “fawn response,” which includes capitulating to the stressor, as a sort of surrender, Reisinger says. And the final response, which is relevant here, according to Reisinger, is fatigue. People who become immensely fatigued in response to stress are using up all the glucose in the brain that they otherwise need to maintain energy throughout the day, he says, sleeping helps restore glucose levels, readying the brain for another tussle with a stressor.
Another biological explanation for my predicament lies with the levels of a neurochemical called orexin in the brain — not only does it provide a boost to the body when we wake up from sleep, its release is also linked to activating the fight or flight response in our body when met with stress, according to a 2018 paper published in the journal Frontiers of Neuroendocrinology. Low levels of orexin not only makes an individual more prone to being sleepy at unusual times, but it also reduces one’s ability to react to stressors in an active, efficient way.
Continually low levels of orexin have also been linked to depression or anxiety disorders. While sleepiness in response to stress is a symptom of depression, it’s not the only, or characteristic, one. Everyone who has this tendency does not suffer from a mental health condition — be it childhood trauma or something wonky going on in the brain, a different-than-usual response to stress is completely normal. But go get a professional opinion, just in case.