If You Can’t Sleep Because You’re Stressed, Blame Evolution

"When your brain is stressed, it thinks there might be a lion around the corner."

03/06/2016 1:54 AM AEST | Updated 03/06/2016 1:54 AM AEST

Stress is pretty much one big buzzkill for sleep -- as anyone who’s spent a sleepless night thinking about a big exam or presentation can attest.  

In this video, sleep expert and adviser Els Van Der Helm, explains that restlessness is actually an evolutionary leftover from the way your brain might have reacted many, many years ago.

“When your brain is stressed, it thinks you’re in physical danger,” according to Van Der Helm. “It thinks that there might be a lion around the corner.” 

And that’s why sleep becomes low on the priority list, she says. “Your brain just wants to survive.”

The brain’s survival reaction keeps your body in light sleep or keeps it fully awake as a way to protect itself -- even though in reality you know that looming presentation is probably not going to jump in bed with you and eat you at 3 a.m.

[The sleep-deprived brain]​ thinks that there might be a lion around the corner. Els Van Der Helm, Sleep Adviser


The body reacts in a similar way on the first night you sleep somewhere you’ve never slept before, Van Der Helm adds. Recent studies have shown that part of your brain actually stays awake as a lookout mechanism to protect you from potential threats.

So much for a relaxing night away from home. 

Here's what you can do to quiet your brain 

Despite the thousands of years of evolution working against your stressed-out brain trying to catch a few winks, you can tell your brain otherwise.

Van Der Helm says the trick to falling asleep when you are stressed is relaxing to make your brain feel safe again.

Here are a few more evidence-backed tips to help you relax and slumber off, no matter what deadlines loom:

1. Smell some lavender.
2. Practice yoga, progressive relaxation or meditation.
3. Write down any negative thoughts and physically throw them away (the trick helps clear your mind).
4. Take a few deep breaths to activate the body’s naturally-calming parasympathetic system.
5. Consider seeing a sleep specialist who might recommend cognitive behavioral therapy or other techniques to address insomnia.

Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at

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