How to Sleep Better if You’re Stressed

Nine ways to relax before bedtime

Another sleepless night spent worrying as you stare at the ceiling? If stress is keeping you awake, there are a host of methods that can help you fall asleep:

Be Mindful. Shortly before bedtime, try a relaxation strategy that incorporates mindfulness, such as yoga, deep breathing, or meditation, all of which boost sleep time and quality.

Skip Screens. The blue light emitted by digital devices—including TVs, phones, laptops, and tablets—can throw off your body’s internal clock, so avoid them before bedtime. Finding a tech-free way to wind down can help soothe stress.

Sip Chamomile Tea. This herb can help lower anxiety, making it easier to fall asleep.

Take a Hot Bath or Shower. A pre-bedtime soak is relaxing. Plus, going from warm water into a cooler bedroom will cause your body temperature to drop, naturally making you feel sleepy.

Do Some Leg Work. While exercising right before bed can sometimes keep you awake, gentle leg exercises are unlikely to negatively affect your sleep. Moves like leg lifts and squats help bring flood flow down to your legs; interestingly, this can have a soothing effect and make it easier to drift off.

Count Sheep. It might sound a little silly, but this actually works. The reason? Keeping your brain focused on one thing helps you power down. If counting sheep isn’t for you, try focusing on your breathing, consciously taking deep breaths in and out, until you feel calmer.

Picture Yourself Asleep. By envisioning yourself in a peaceful sleep, you’ll instantly put yourself in a state of relaxation. For extra calm, clench and release your muscles, starting with your face and working down to your feet.

Work Out Early. Exercise is a great stress reliever and has been shown to improve the quality of sleep, particularly for insomniacs. But make sure your more intense workouts aren’t too close to bedtime. If you find that your treadmill runs are keeping you awake at night, hit the gym at least three hours before you turn in.

Worry Earlier in the Day. When your mind is racing with concerns while you’re trying to fall asleep, that can make it nearly impossible to drift off. Instead, dedicate 15 minutes during the day to process these thoughts. Writing a to-do list or thinking about solutions can be a healthy way to deal with stress and prevent it from interfering with sleep later.

The Sleep Doctor’s 5 relaxation techniques to help you de-stress and sleep better

Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn via Foter.com / CC BY

The Sleep Doctor’s 5 relaxation techniques to help you de-stress and sleep better

We’re coming off a bitterly fought, contentious election. We’re headed straight into the holiday season. Suffice it to say, there is plenty of stress—and probably a lot of restless sleep—to go around.

Instead of white knuckling through a tense time, consider trying some simple relaxation practices to help you manage stress and anxiety and to sleep better.

The relationship between anxiety and sleep

If, like most people, you’ve ever had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep because of stress and worry, you’ve experienced firsthand the strong connection between anxiety and insomnia. Stress routinely tops the list of sources of sleep problems, according to patients.

Anxiety causes racing thoughts, making it difficult to quiet the mind. It can contribute to heightened, intense emotions, including intrusive fear and a sense of being overwhelmed. Stress and anxiety lead to physical tension throughout the body. Under stress, the body releases more of several hormones—including adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine—that boost energy and alertness, raise heart rate and blood pressure, and prime the body for “fight or flight.” Along with the other symptoms of anxiety, these hormonally driven responses to stress all contribute to:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Trouble staying asleep throughout the night
  • Waking very early
  • Waking feeling un-rested and un-refreshed by sleep

These are the hallmark symptoms of insomnia. Anxiety can contribute to different types of insomnia. Periods of high and intense stress—often resulting from difficult, at times unexpected life events—can trigger acute insomnia. That’s when insomnia comes on suddenly and lasts for a relatively short period of time, from a few days to a few weeks. A tense encounter at work, a fight with a partner, or the death of a loved one are the types of anxiety and stress-producing events that trigger acute insomnia.

Anxiety symptoms, when present consistently, can also bring about chronic insomnia—that’s insomnia that persists on a regular basis for more than a month. Anxiety disorders very often are accompanied by insomnia.

Stress and sleep exist in a bi-directional relationship. Just as stress and anxiety trigger insomnia and other sleep problems, lack of sleep increases stress and anxiety. Poor sleep makes us more vulnerable to the symptoms of anxiety, including:

  • Irritability and short-temperedness
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Struggles with motivation
  • Trouble with concentration and memory recall
  • Lack of energy
  • Increased emotional reactivity

High stress and lack of sleep both contribute to greater risks for mental and physical illness. Stress and insufficient sleep are each independently linked to obesity and weight gain, anxiety and depression, type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive dysfunction.

Managing stress and ensuring a routine of plentiful, high quality sleep are critical to protecting your health. Relaxation exercises can help you do both.

5 types of relaxation exercises for sleep

Relaxation exercises have been shown highly effective in reducing stress and improving sleep. Low impact, self-directed, and easily able to be integrated to your daily life, these relaxation strategies can help you get a handle on stress and anxiety during your waking day, and help you de-stress at night before you go to be. The truth is, the line between day and night is not so clear. How we behave throughout the day—including how we manage stress—has a significant effect on how well we sleep at night. Think of your daily, consistent attention to relaxation as a round-the-clock investment in your nightly sleep.

Autogenic training

This form of relaxation isn’t particularly well known. That’s a shame, because autogenic training is an effective, accessible method for reducing stress and improving sleep. AT works by using a series of exercises to focus the mind’s attention to specific physical sensations of the body, in order to relax both mentally and physically. Autogenic training focuses the mind on cultivating sensations of warmth and heaviness in different regions of the body. These exercises use both visual imagery and verbal cues to relax physically as well as to quiet and calm one’s thoughts.

AT exercises are most effective when practiced regularly. You can use these relaxation techniques to manage stress throughout the day. Incorporating autogenic training into your nightly power down routine can help you prepare the body and the mind for sleep.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback techniques collect information about the body that alert you to stress and allow you to take steps to relax, mentally and physically. Biofeedback works through sensors that track and measure different physical functions, including:

  • Breathing
  • Heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Body temperature
  • Muscle contraction
  • Sleep stages

These physiological processes provide important signals about stress levels. Rapid breathing, sweaty palms, and an uptick in heart rate are common signs of anxiety. Biofeedback, by bringing attention to these physical manifestations of stress and anxiety, giving you the chance to deal with that stress using other relaxation strategies.

There is a booming business behind delivering biofeedback through mobile and wearable devices. In addition to tracking fitness, movement, and sleep, many wearable trackers are also delivering information about stress and emotions, as measured through biofeedback. Of course, tracking on its own can’t relax you—but it can make alert you to signs of stress so you can take focused, self-aware steps toward relaxation, whether in the middle of an active day or in the evening as you prepare for sleep.

Breathing

Deep, slow, self-aware breathing is an ancient, powerful way to clear the body of stress and tension, and a great way to relax as part of a nightly transition to sleep. Deep breathing kicks off a series of physiological changes that aid relaxation, including reducing muscle tension, slowing breathing rate and heart rate, lowering blood pressure and metabolism.

A breathing practice can be as simple as taking a series of even, slow inhale and exhale breaths as a regular routine during the day, or whenever you feel anxious or stressed. There are also a multitude of structured breathing exercises. Here is one of my favorites.

4-7-8 breathing

In a comfortable position, with your eyes open or closed:

  • Inhale for 4 seconds
  • Hold breath for 7 seconds
  • Exhale slowly, for 8 seconds
  • Repeat several times

What does the act of deep breathing do for the body and mind, to relax and promote healthy sleep? By taking a deep inhale and holding your breath, you’re increasing the body’s oxygen level, allowing your body to have to work slightly less hard to function. A long, slow exhale has a meditative quality to it that is inherently relaxing. That slow exhale is also very similar to the pace of breathing your body adopts as you’re falling asleep. By deep breathing before bedtime, in a way you’re mimicking the breathing patterns of sleep onset, and nudging your body and mind toward its all-important period of rest.

Guided imagery

Think about tasting a tart or sour food–maybe sucking on lemon or a lime, or swallowing a teaspoon of vinegar. Really imagine this experience: the smell, the taste on your tongue, the sensation as the food hits your throat. What happened? You likely had a physical reaction to this fantasy. Maybe your lips puckered, or your mouth watered. That is the power of imagination, and of guided imagery. When we imagine something, our bodies respond as though they were actually experiencing that imagined moment.

Guided imagery is a mind-body technique that can be used to reduce stress and promote sleep. Guided imagery exercises engage all the senses in a focused period of imagination. This powerful mind-body tool helps to connect the conscious mind with the unconscious mind, and helps the mind direct the body toward positive, desirable responses. Guided imagery can be tailored and targeted to different goals, including to relieve physical and mental stress, to reduce anxiety, to prepare for and bring about sleep. Guided imagery is another terrific component of a nightly pre-bed routine. Spending a few minutes engaged in a soothing, restful guided image journey—such as imagining floating peacefully in a calm ocean, being rocked by gentle waves and covered by a warm breeze—can help you gently separate from the stresses of the day and prepare the mind and body to sleep.

There are several different levels and forms of guided imagery that range from visualizations to more organized and targeted imaginative scripts and storytelling. It’s possible to learn guided imagery on your own. It can also be valuable to seek the assistance of a therapist or practitioner in developing a guided imagery practice.

Progressive relaxation

This mind-body relaxation technique is a simple, striking way to become familiar with your body and the places where you hold stress and tension. Progressive relaxation involves working one at a time with different areas and muscle groups of the body, first tensing and relaxing them. This practice cultivates an awareness of what both tension and relaxation feel like in your body. With that awareness you become better prepared to address that physical tension and any mental or emotional stress that accompanies it.

Used as part of a nightly power down routine, progressive relaxation can help you release physical and mental tension that, left unaddressed, can interfere with sleep. A typical progressive relaxation routine starts at the lowest point of the body—the feet—and works gradually up to the top of the head, tensing and relaxing every area of the body along the way.

The broad benefits of relaxation

Scientific studies are showing the benefits of these relaxation techniques in managing stress and promoting sound and restful sleep. Controlling stress and getting sufficient high-quality sleep are two important components of health, so by using relaxation techniques to help in these areas, you’re making an investment in your fundamental well being.

These same relaxation techniques are also used to help a range of other health conditions. On their own, and more often in conjunction with other therapies, these five relaxation practices may help:

  • Reduce chronic and intermittent pain
  • Limit daytime fatigue
  • Ease nausea
  • Improve cardiovascular function, including lowering blood pressure
  • Treat and control symptoms of mood disorders, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD
  • Quit smoking

These relaxation techniques are used in treatment of cancer and other serious illnesses to help patients better cope with symptoms of disease and of treatment. There is preliminary, emerging evidence that meditation and relaxation practices may contribute to better cancer outcomes. Studies also indicate that relaxation practices may have a positive effect on immune function and nervous-system activity.

The broad potential benefits of relaxation practices stand to go way beyond helping you manage your way through family holidays, or navigate post-election conversations with co-workers and friends. Integrating relaxation exercises to your daily life can significantly improve your sleep, lower your levels of ongoing stress and anxiety—and help you better cope with the acute spikes in stress we all encounter in life. They can contribute to whole body health and wellness, through every day and every season of the year.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™

Follow me on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, to learn more.

Tips for Managing Stress

Find the source of your stress: Once you know what’s causing your discomfort, you can take steps to deal with it. So identify the stress you have at work, at home, and in your relationships.

Get support: Spending time with people who care about you is a key buffer. You can confide in each other or do things that are fun.

Practice having healthy thoughts: What you think, how you think, and what you expect out of situations can affect how you feel. You can learn to change stressful thinking. One common mistake is to focus on the way things “should” be. (Example: “I should be more productive around the house.”) Another mistake is to make broad statements based on one small fact. (Example: “I’m failing at my job because I had one food splurge.”) Many books can teach you how to improve your self-talk. Certain types of counseling, including cognitive behavioral therapy, can help you focus on more empowering thoughts, too.

Get moving: Exercise eases stress by letting you blow off tension. Flexible muscles are also less likely to become tense when you’re stressed. If you have a medical condition, are over age 45, or haven’t been active for a while, it’s best to check with your doctor before starting an exercise routine, so you know what’s OK for you to do.

Sleep can reduce stress levels

One picture of a lawyer is staying up until all hours working.

That may involve staying up night after night preparing for litigation − the cross-examination the next day, the submissions to the judge, the address to the jury. It may be working long hours on some matter, such as a commercial transaction.

That is a necessity of life for many lawyers.

Working long hours is stressful enough, but when it cuts into usual hours of sleep, stress levels will go up higher.

For some lawyers, the long hours may not translate into a long-term stress problem. But for some, it will.

Stress and sleep have a two-way relationship. High stress levels can make sleeping more difficult. They can even lead to sleep disorders.

At the same time, getting a good night’s sleep can help reduce the effects of stress.

“Many things that we take for granted are affected by sleep,” says Dr Raymonde Jean, director of sleep medicine and associate director of critical care at St Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. “If you sleep better, you can certainly live better.

“Sleep can definitely reduce levels of stress,” she says. “With that, people can have better control of their blood pressure. It’s also believed that sleep affects cholesterol levels, which plays a significant role in heart disease.”

“A good night’s sleep allows you to tackle the day’s stress easier,” according to the Sleep Disorders Health Centre on www.webmd.com.

“When you are tired, you are less patient and easily agitated which can increase stress. Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Practising good sleep hygiene along with stress-lowering tactics can help improve your quality of sleep.”

And that sentence brings us to the second part of the two-way relationship between sleep and stress.

The first part is that good sleep can reduce stress. The second part is that stress can reduce the quality or even the ability to sleep.

“Stress causes insomnia by making it difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep, and by affecting the quality of your sleep,” says Dr Neil Kavey, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at The New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

“Stress causes hyperarousal, which can upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness. Nevertheless, many people under stress do not have insomnia.”

If you are not sleeping well, whatever the cause, it is important to get on a good programme – one that pays attention to periods of relaxation.

Dr Kavey suggests three steps:

First, set your bedtime and your wake-up time according to the number of hours of sleep you are getting currently. For example, if you are sleeping only five hours a night (even though you usually plan to spend eight hours in bed), set your sleep time for that amount. Then gradually increase the amount of time allotted for sleep by 15 minutes or so every few nights. The idea is to “squeeze out” the middle of the night-time awakening and gradually increase the amount of sleep you will get during the night.

Second, spend some time “winding down.” A person with insomnia needs a “buffer zone,” a period of time to allow the activating processes in the brain to wind down and to allow the alerting mechanisms to decrease their activity so that the sleep systems can take over. “I suggest that you start winding down two hours before bedtime. Stop all work and end phone calls to family and friends, as often they are activating. Watching television is all right in the evening. However, an hour before bed, I recommend reading or listening to music.”

Finally, focus on conditioning yourself for different sleep behavior. Insomnia is painful for people. It can take control of their lives. When someone suffering from insomnia walks into their bedroom, they often feel anxious, uncomfortable and tense, as they know from their experience that they might spend the night tossing and turning. They need to set up a situation so that they like going to their bedroom. The bedroom should be visually pleasing and very comfortable. One should use the bedroom only for sleep, sex, and changing clothes – pleasant activities. If awake in the night, one should leave the bed and bedroom and spend “unpleasant” times awake in another room. “Waking” activities such as working on the computer, talking with one’s partner, talking on the phone and watching TV should take place out of the bedroom.

“It’s important to recognise that transient insomnias are very common,” Dr Kavey says. “A night or two of insomnia may not be much of a problem for most people. But if insomnia persists for days and has an impact on the way you feel during the day, you should think about speaking to your doctor.”

This is the third in a series about the stress-busting effects of three things: exercise, good nutrition and sleep.

An interesting and important fact is that these three have been proved to also be beneficial for depression, heart health, diabetes, general well-being … the list goes on.

How to tell if stress is affecting your sleep

By lowering their stress levels in the evening before bed, many people could improve the duration and quality of their sleep.

The lifestyle changes below may help reduce stress:

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a relaxation technique that aims to make people more aware of the present moment. The aim is to acknowledge all the thoughts, feelings, and sensations happening within and outside the body without reacting to them.

Research has shown that this technique offers several benefits for mental well-being. A review of 47 trials, which included a total of 3,515 participants, found that mindfulness meditation led to small-to-moderate improvements in anxiety, depression, and stress.

More high-quality research is necessary to determine whether or not mindfulness works as a clinical treatment, but it may be a useful at-home method for people to use.

Practicing mindfulness for 10–30 minutes before going to bed could be an effective method of reducing stress and improving sleep.

Exercise

Share on PinterestExercise can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and stress.

Physical exercise is a useful tool for improving mental health and well-being, as well as providing physical benefits.

Research suggests that the effects of physical exercise on psychological well-being could make it a suitable treatment for anxiety and stress-related disorders, reducing the need to pursue other treatments.

A review published in 2017 found that physical activity is effective at reducing the symptoms of anxiety and stress.

Further evidence also suggests that exercise has a direct impact on improving the quality of sleep in people over the age of 40 with sleep difficulties.

Engaging in moderate or high-intensity physical exercise, such as a 30-minute run, could help reduce stress levels and improve sleep quality.

Other lifestyle changes

The following lifestyle changes may also help some people reduce their stress levels:

  • adapting to a more healthful diet
  • lowering caffeine and alcohol intake
  • avoiding taking work home or checking work emails in the evening
  • seeking support from friends and family

Reducing stress can be very challenging. It is essential to identify the source of the stress, which is often related to work or a relationship. Although these problems can be difficult and slow to resolve, removing the source of stress is vital to getting better.

Sleep and Stress

How does one affect the other?

Stress can impact your life in many ways, including negatively affecting the quality of your sleep. It makes sense: You lie in bed, worrying and feeling anxious, which makes it almost impossible to relax and quiet your mind enough to fall asleep. It’s no wonder people use the phrase “losing sleep over something.”That’s also why people who suffer from chronic stress day in and day out sleep less, have poorer sleep quality, and find it harder to function well during the day.

Unfortunately, this cycle will only continue to get worse: If you don’t sleep enough at night, your body boosts its levels of stress hormones. The brain chemicals connected with deep sleep are the same ones that tell the body to stop the production of stress hormones. As a result, when you don’t sleep well, your body keeps pumping out those hormones The next day, you feel more stressed, the following night you find it harder to fall asleep, and so on. Even worse, stress hormones peak in the afternoon and early evening—just when you should be relaxing and preparing for slumber.

On top of that, the more exhausted you feel, the less you’re able to focus at work and at home, leading to even more stress. You’re also likelier to snap at your friends and family, causing stress over relationships.

More downsides to all this stress? People who have high, prolonged levels of stress have higher risk of heart disease, depression, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, stomach issues, and more. They are also more likely to grind or clench their teeth, which can lead to dental problems.

That’s why it’s so important, if you feel overly tense, to try different stress relief methods and to make getting plenty of sleep a high priority. The good news is that there are plenty of simple strategies that you can try tonight!

It can be difficult to fall or stay asleep if you’re stressed out. In fact, stress can lead to insomnia by causing hyper-arousal in your body and mind. Making matters worse, getting too little sleep can make you feel even more stressed, leading to a vicious cycle of continuous tossing and turning and tension. That’s why it’s smart to take steps to leave any stress behind before you go to bed. These strategies that will help you do that.

Exercise in the morning or afternoon. Whether it’s walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming, playing a sport, using a cardio machine, or taking an exercise class, engaging in physical activity is a great way to release both physical and mental tension. Since exercise increases body temperature temporarily, it’s best for many people to work out at least three hours before bedtime so that their body temperature has enough time to drop and set the stage for sleep. However, if you find that evening exercise doesn’t negatively affect your sleep, then there’s no reason to make a change.

Take time to downshift before bedtime. For at least 30 minutes (preferably an hour) before bedtime, avoid doing anything stimulating or stressful. That means: No texting, no catching up on work, and no watching tense TV shows. Instead, dim the lights and lower the volume; read an interesting book, take a warm bath, do some gentle stretching, or listen to music that helps calm you.

Tame your tension. Spend five to 10 minutes doing a calming routine—such as deep breathing, guided imagery, or progressive muscle relaxation—before you turn in. These decompression techniques can help you feel less stressed and reduce your blood pressure and heart rate.

Turn off your thoughts. To prevent daytime worries from sabotaging your sleep, make a concerted effort to switch your mind into “off” mode before you turn in for the night.You can do this by jotting down your concerns in the afternoon and putting them aside to address the next morning. Or, you can practice mindfulness meditation: Sit quietly with your eyes closed, clear your mind of thoughts, and focus on your breathing. When thoughts do come to mind, simply notice them as if they were clouds floating across the sky and return your attention to your breathing. Having a clear, calm mind puts you a sleep-friendly state.

How Can Sleep Reduce Stress?

Sleep is one of the foundations for good health along with a healthy diet and regular exercise. It repairs tissues, consolidates memory and keeps us fresh and alert. Unfortunately, not all of us get the sleep we need. And, in today’s highly driven world, stress levels can wreak havoc on our health if left unchecked. According to a Gallup poll, eight in 10 Americans say they experience stress frequently or sometimes in their daily lives. Just 21 percent say they rarely or never do. Getting enough sleep can help manage stress and tackle stressors better.

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The Link Between Sleep And Stress

1. Maintains Healthy Cortisol Levels

A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that sleep loss leads to elevated cortisol the next evening. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that the adrenal glands produce in response to stress, both good and bad. It helps reduce inflammation, regulate metabolism, and aids in the formation of memory. Ideally, cortisol levels should neither be too high nor too low.

Sleep drops cortisol to healthy levels, and when you don’t get enough of it, your body continues to produce more. You wake up feeling more stressed which makes it harder to sleep the next night. And so the cycle continues. It does not just sleep that elevated cortisol affects; if it continues to remain high, it can lead to headaches, high blood pressure and even trouble sleeping, which exacerbates the problem.

2. Keeps You Mentally Alert

You’ve probably noticed how refreshed you feel after a good night’s sleep. You feel stronger and ready to tackle the stresses that come with the day. Sleep is a restorative process that’s important for brain health. It flushes toxins that can accumulate in the brain. During sleep, your brain also consolidates memory so that you’re able to recall it properly when you wake.

3. Keeps You Emotionally Balanced

Being emotionally balanced is important as you’re able to deal with stress in a more rational manner. Sleep reduces anxiety and depression by healing your system and preventing you from being emotionally sensitive. In a study, researchers found that sleep deprivation keeps the amygdala – a set of neurons that processes emotions – in a heightened state of activation which increases anxiety and hampers emotional regulation.

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How Stress Contributes To Sleep Problems

If you’re stressed about something and constantly think about it, you will find it harder to fall asleep. Your mind is hypervigilant and even if your body needs rest, it simply can’t because you’re just too awake. You may also develop sleep problems like insomnia. The less you sleep, the more anxious you become, and unless you learn to deal with stress in a healthy manner, you’ll rack up sleep debt and set yourself up for health consequences like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

How To Get Better Sleep To Combat Stress

Practice Relaxation Techniques

This is a great way to combat stress as it disengages your mind from what’s bothering you and shifts the focus to your actions and your body. Take long, slow breaths and move your focus away from distracting thoughts. After a few minutes of this, concentrate on the part of your body and mentally release physical tension from there. Guided imagery is another relaxation technique where you need to conjure images of soothing scenes to relax you.

Ditch The Screens

Avoid using your phone, tablet or laptop at least an hour before bed. The blue light emitted from them can suppress the release of the sleep hormone melatonin and make it harder to fall asleep. Being on your device will also keep you alert and may prompt you to check work emails etc. that will only stress you out.

Take A Warm Shower/Bath

A warm shower – or better yet, a bath – is a great way to relax especially before bedtime. It also lowers your core body temperature and induces sleep. Don’t do it too close to bedtime otherwise, your body temperature will be high. Take it about an hour and a half before so you have time to cool down.

Keep Your Bedroom Sleep-Friendly

Darkness signals your body to produce melatonin so switch the lights off or use a dimmer to turn them down. You should also use comfortable pillows and a good mattress so that you can relax and drift off to sleep.

Nuvanna is a mattress that’s designed to give you better sleep. It was created by an industry expert with more than two decades of experience. It has a triple layer construction, and each has a role to play in your sleep. The top layer draws body heat away and disperses it with the help of phase-changing gel particles. The middle layer absorbs motion so that you and your partner can move freely without disturbing each other. The bottom layer keeps the spine aligned, supports individual body parts, and prevents you from sinking in.

Stress is a part of life, and we can never escape it. A little stress is good for us too as it drives us to perform better. But too much of it can hamper our health and prevent us from leading a healthy, balanced life. We can learn to structure our time such that we set aside enough hours for sleep so that we wake up feeling fresh and raring to go. We can also learn to manage stress in order to sleep better.

Mental Health

Melanie Badali, PhD, RPsych

Reprinted from “Mind-Body Connection” issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 10 (2), p. 21

Have you ever been so stressed out that you can’t fall asleep? Have you had problems sleeping that caused you stress? Sleep difficulties occur naturally in response to stress. Sleep difficulties can also cause stress. Minds and bodies can become aroused and difficult to calm down in both types of situations.

About stress

Stress is associated with emotional upset and body tension. Both increase arousal, which is a state of being awake and ready for action.

Arousal alerts and prepares the body to deal with danger. If you actually are in danger, you want to be awake and prepared to fight or run away. If you were a wild animal and you fell asleep when a predator was around, you wouldn’t survive very long. But you’re not a wild animal. Running away, hiding or fighting are probably not the best strategies for dealing with the types of stressors you face (e.g., financial, social, personal, occupational).

The way you view yourself and the world, or what your mind’s eye sees, can influence how your body reacts. If you see a large dog and hear it barking loudly and running toward you, you may perceive the threat level differently if you know the dog to be friendly than you would if it’s unknown to you. If it was your pet, you could interpret the dog’s barks as excitement.

Try thinking about stress as if it were a balance scale. On one side of the scale you have perceived demands. On the other side of the scale you have perceived resources. Imagine a situation where you have to pay a bill of $100. If you have $500 in your bank account, you can pay the bill. Your demand does not exceed your resources. But, if you only have $50 in your bank account, your demand outweighs your resources.

Whether we feel stressed, or not, has to do with our perception of our demands and resources. One individual might not mind dipping into a line of credit to pay a bill, whereas another person might feel like a failure for not having enough savings. The way you view a demand or problem, as well as how you appraise your resources and ability to cope with it, can have a big impact on how you will feel.

Envisioning stress as a balancing act between perceived demands and perceived resources allows you to view stress management as the process of:

  • reducing perceived demands, and

  • increasing perceived resources

If you find your mind and body racing, ask yourself, “What are my stressors?” But don’t stop there. Ask yourself, “What are my strengths and resources? What can I do to solve or cope with my problems?” Sometimes people get stuck focusing on stressors without paying attention to the things they can do to deal with them. Or, they don’t see the ways they can view things differently to reduce the impact of the stressors on their emotions and body.

About sleep

Good sleep is definitely on the “resource” side of the scale. Good sleep helps with psychological functioning, including improved emotional regulation and cognitive processes such as concentration, attention and memory. Sleeping well also benefits general physical health by restoring the body and physical energy, repairing injury and promoting growth. Social functioning can also be affected by sleep, as tired, cranky people aren’t usually fun to be around.

Sleep is influenced to a large degree by two main systems in your body: your body-clock system and your sleep-driver system.1 Your body-clock determines the best timing for sleep. It operates by sending alert signals to keep you awake. Your sleep-driver system balances time asleep and time awake. It operates by increasing the pressure to go to sleep with each accumulating waking hour. If everything is running smoothly, your sleep-promoting system will win out over your alertness-promoting system each night.

But if your stress level at bedtime is high, your alertness-promoting system can win out over sleep. Reducing stress by viewing demands as manageable can quieten the emotional and physiological arousal signals that get set off when you view demands as threatening or overwhelming. When your stress level at bedtime is low, you are more likely to fall asleep easily.

Tips for lowering stress levels at bedtime

If your stress levels tend to run high near bedtime:

  • Plan an hour of quiet time before bedtime when you focus on doing activities that promote rest. Develop rituals of things that remind your body that it’s time to sleep (e.g., relaxing stretches, breathing exercises, bathing, reading).
  • Make your bed a cue for sleep by moving wakeful activities (e.g., screen time, working, worrying, planning) out of the bed.
  • Go to bed only when you are sleepy. Leave your bed if your mind and body are too active to promote sleep. You can usually figure out after about 20 minutes whether you’re going to fall asleep or not.

Tips for building your resources

  • Build healthy routines and habits around self-care. Do activities—including healthy eating, regular exercise and sleep—at regular times, as this can help set your body-clock.
  • Focus on your strengths and play to them. How you view yourself and your ability to cope with stress can influence your stress levels and sleep. As Christopher Robin in A.A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh says, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
  • Self-nurture. Spend time doing things you enjoy and that make you feel good about yourself. Sometimes people spend so much time trying to manage their demands that they forget to take care of themselves. You can’t drive your car to the store to pick up groceries if you are out of gas. Similarly, if you do not spend any time taking care of yourself, you will burn out.
  • Connect with others. Develop a support system. Research shows that being able to perceive social support has protective effects on maintaining physical and psychological health, including increasing resilience to stress2 and promoting sleep.3 Spend time with the people you care about and who care about you. Get involved in your community.
  • Practise relaxation or meditation regularly. Calm breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and mindfulness skills can help calm and connect your body and mind. Regular practice can build up your resources and help you be better equipped to face life’s challenges.

Jon Kabat-Zinn describes meditation as a way of being: “You don’t want to start weaving the parachute when you’re about to jump out of the plane. You want to have been weaving the parachute morning, noon, and night, day in and day-out, so that when you need it, it will actually hold you.”4 Regular relaxation practice can also help you sleep better.

Tips for managing your demands

  • Make a stress management plan. Set aside time during the day to manage your stressors, or demands, so your thoughts aren’t so busy when you try to wind down at night. Identify your demands: Are there problems you can solve? Are there things you have no control over? Are you worried about things that haven’t even happened and may never happen? Next to each demand, write something about your plan, resources or ability to cope. Try to figure out which demands are problems to be solved with action (e.g., rent payment is due) and which ones need to be accepted (e.g., loved one has died). Choose the best strategy for dealing with each one.
  • Use time management strategies. These can include prioritizing (e.g., figure out what is essential, what is important and what can be put off), delegating (let someone else take care of it) and using lists to help you plan, monitor and execute tasks more effectively. It’s also helpful to set goals that are SMART (specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, timely).
  • Try healthy thinking strategies. Challenge unrealistic thinking, focus on the positives, turn worries into action plans, use problem solving and accept the things you cannot change. Let go of perfectionism. Try thinking in shades of gray: there is a range of performance, and ‘satisfactory,’ ‘good,’ ‘very good’ and ‘excellent’ are all alternatives to ‘perfect’ and ‘fail.’
  • Use emotional strategies. Identify, express and communicate your feelings. Labelling an emotion or putting your feelings into words can help reduce your negative experience of that emotion, and lead to changes in your brain and body.5 Try talking to a therapist or friend, or writing your feelings down.
  • Practise social and communication strategies. Practise assertive communication by saying no and asking for help. You can reduce the number of demands on you by not taking on so many in the first place. Delegate tasks to others if you can.
About the author

Dr. Melanie Badali is a Registered Psychologist certified in cognitive-behavioural therapy. She practises at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic (www.nssac.ca) and is a member of the board of directors for Anxiety BC (www.anxietybc.com)

Footnotes:

How sleep reduces stress?

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