Coping with the death of a loved one, divorce, or even major money problems can create enough stress to keep a person up night after night. But a new study finds that it's the way we cope with stress that can eventually cause us to have insomnia. Researchers from the Sleep & Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, published their findings in the journal Sleep, which identified for the first time the connection between stress coping behaviors and insomnia.

"Our study is among the first to show that it's not the number of stressors, but your reaction to them that determines the likelihood of experiencing insomnia," said lead author Dr. Vivek Pillai, research fellow at the Sleep Disorders & Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, in a press release. "While a stressful event can lead to a bad night of sleep, it's what you do in response to stress that can be the difference between a few bad nights and chronic insomnia."

Researchers studied 2,892 people who had no lifetime history of insomnia and had gotten an adequate enough amount of sleep each night. Each participant reported the number of stressful events in their life, such as divorce, serious illness, major financial problems, or the death of a loved one, and then rated how much stress it added to their lives.

A year later, researchers followed up on the participants and found that the ones who had developed insomnia coped with their stress by watching television, drinking, drugs, and disengaging from the situation. Those who were mindful of their stressors, and who didn’t cope by disengaging from their problems, had better sleep and a lower risk for insomnia.

"Though we may not be able to control external events, we can reduce their burden by staying away from certain maladaptive behaviors," Pillai said. The participants who kept thinking about the stressful situation accounted for 69 percent of insomniacs. Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that makes it difficult for people to fall asleep or stay asleep. They defined participants with insomnia as those who didn't sleep or had trouble sleeping for at least three nights a week for a month or longer. 

As sleep disorders such as insomnia have become increasingly recognized as impactful to health and quality of life, there has been an influx of patients visiting sleep centers and practitioners, complaining about problems ranging from sleep apnea to narcolepsy, and restless leg syndrome to fatigue.

Chronic sleep deprivation results in daytime sleepiness, slower reflexes, poor concentration, and increased risk of car accidents. Long-term problems, which pose more severe health consequences, include diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and weight gain. Between 50 and 70 million Americans are affected by chronic sleep disorders, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Poor sleep is also a risk factor for depression and substance abuse, especially among people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People with PTSD tend to relive their trauma when they try to sleep, which keeps their brains in a heightened state of alertness.

"This study is an important reminder that stressful events and other major life changes often cause insomnia," American Academy of Sleep Medicine President Dr. Timothy Morgenthaler said in the release. "If you are feeling overwhelmed by events in your life, talk to you doctor about strategies to reduce your stress level and improve your sleep."

Source: Pillai V, Mullins HM, Drake CL, et al. Moderators and Mediators of the Relationship Between Stress and Insomnia: Stressor Chronicity, Cognitive Intrusion, and Coping. Sleep. 2014.