Most people can relate to a night spent tossing and turning, worrying about a job or a personal relationship. These situations are common, temporary, and usually only result in a bit of grogginess the next day. But what happens if the stress is chronic? Can stress cause sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder? Keep reading.

Can stress cause sleep apnea?

While stress may not be the primary cause of sleep apnea, there is plenty of evidence that it doesn’t help. Worse, both may exacerbate symptoms of the other.

Stress is an important biological response for situations that require quick action, but chronic stress negatively impacts our overall physical and mental health. If you have an excess of stress, it stands to reason that your sleep might be affected.

What’s the relationship between sleep apnea and stress?

While there may be no direct link between stress and sleep apnea, some conditions that contribute to the development of sleep apnea have their deep roots in long-term or chronic stress.

Generally, sleep apnea and the following conditions are considered bidirectional. This means that one affects and worsens the other. And while sleep apnea may not be a direct cause of these conditions, poor sleep can intensify the effects of each.


Bruxism (also commonly referred to as teeth grinding and jaw clenching) is a stress-related dental disorder. Of the estimated 25 million people in the U.S. with sleep apnea, 25% of them are also diagnosed with bruxism. This means that in addition to waking up in a haze of poor sleep, those with bruxism also experience the following:

  • Sore jaw
  • Headache
  • Clicking and popping in the temporomandibular joint
  • Development of TMD/TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder)

A primary cause of bruxism is stress. An estimated 70% of bruxism is due to excessive stress or anxiety. The simple act of tooth grinding and the sudden increase in cardiovascular arousal mimics the same response the body has when it begins breathing again after an apneic pause in breathing.

Additionally, most bruxism occurs during the REM stage of sleep – the worst time for sleep apnea as well. Together, these two conditions feed off one another to make for a truly terrible night’s sleep.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a condition that mentally places a person back into a situation of previously experienced trauma. It does not matter if the trauma is well past, or if the person does not quite remember the trauma. Characterized by hypervigilance, irritation, anxiety, overreaction, and poor sleep, PTSD is a mental health condition that carries with it life-threatening consequences.

This type of stress and sleep apnea are clearly linked. For example, the stress of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and the resulting PTSD made it the primary factor for increased risk of sleep apnea in 70% of veterans in a 2015 study. Further, the primary cause of sleep apnea for 76% of veterans in a 2018 study was PTSD after combat.

It’s important to note that anxiety is one of the major symptoms of those suffering from PTSD. If a person is diagnosed with sleep apnea, they are 18 times more likely to suffer from anxiety, as well.

Sleep apnea and stress are clearly linked when it comes to PTSD.


We often think of stress as being a rapidly moving, frantic condition and depression as sluggish and slow, but this is not always the case. Sometimes a person who is depressed experiences their first depression due to a sense of being overwhelmed by life’s daily stressors. This causes them to spiral down into depressive episodes that include poor sleep and the potential for sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea interferes with treatment for depression. It also increases the risk of suicide for patients with major depressive disorder and can complicate compliance with any kind of sleep apnea treatment.

And in another twist, sleep apnea can actually be misdiagnosed as depression. This dangerous misdiagnosis can result in serious health complications.

How to manage stress and sleep apnea

Here are five ways to better manage stress and sleep apnea to get the rest you need.

1. Practice proper sleep hygiene

Keep your bedroom clean and uncluttered. Use blackout shades to keep the room dark at night, and minimize ambient electronic glow (i.e., from a phone charger or clock).

Keep the room temperature cool and reserve your bedroom for sleep and intimacy only (no work!).

2. Turn off all electronics at least an hour before bed

Phones, laptops, and TVs all stimulate the brain. Give yourself at least an hour before bed free from electronic devices. (Two if you can manage it!)

3. Get plenty of exercise

It is well-documented that exercise improves the quantity and quality of sleep. Exercise also helps achieve and maintain a healthy BMI. This alone reduces the risk and severity of sleep apnea.

Further, exercise is one of the best ways to manage stress. It reduces stress hormones and stimulates the production of endorphins.

4. Manage daytime stress

Using mindfulness meditation training during the day can help you better manage stress as it arises. Learn to use your breath to slow down when you feel stress building.

5. Use breathing techniques to fall asleep

It may take some time to find the right one for you, but breathing exercises help you relax and drift off to sleep.

Get in the habit of reserving time to breathe and release the day before bed.

Find sleep apnea treatments that work

When it comes to sleep apnea and stress, treating one often helps relieve symptoms of the other. Getting plenty of exercise and developing good sleep habits can help relieve stress, but what about treating sleep apnea?

While continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines can offer relief for some, many patients struggle with the noise and discomfort of this treatment. AZ Dentist uses sleep apnea dental devices that are individually made and carefully titrated to your unique anatomy for optimal comfort and a full night of rest.

Can stress cause sleep apnea? At AZ Dentist, we can help you find the answer to that question and get the help you need for a better night’s sleep. Get in touch today.

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