In today’s world, you would struggle to come across a person who does not have stress in their life. With the birth of the internet and the ever-increasing number of people in this world, we continuously have the pressure to be better, smarter, stronger, more successful. Our daily exposure to personal issues and never-ending commitments are causing us to deal with more stressors on a day-to-day basis than our ancestors before us.
Gone are the Neanderthal days of ensuring you weren’t a bobcat’s next meal. We now have to ensure that Ellen isn’t out to get our job, Nathan isn’t living a better life full of nonstop vacations, and the whole family just needs to make it through one day without someone getting sick. Even when you don’t feel stressed, you’re still stressed.
If you’ve ever lied awake at night with the intent and desire to fall asleep, but have been plagued with invading thoughts or hypothetical situations – you know the burden of stress and the anxiety that can come with it. It is more than simply daydreaming until you happen to fall asleep; it is the overthinking, overanalyzing worry that keeps your brain running in circles and often causes it to come off track. This isn’t a productive brainstorm, rather an unhelpful reminder of tasks that are due or problems that need to be solved.
How Does Stress Affect Our Sleep?
You already know that you feel stressed and as a result, you are losing sleep. To better make sense of the correlation between stress and your sleep patterns, it is important to understand why your body has this reaction from a chemical point of view.
Our body is a machine that only functions with the help of well-oiled systems which all work together to keep us running smoothly. There are two systems to focus on when it comes to stress: The Nervous system and the Endocrine system.
In times of stress, the Nervous and Endocrine systems work together to produce hormones which act as messengers between our cells. Glands throughout the body release these hormones into the bloodstream, allowing different functions to take place.
The two essential hormones produced by these systems are called Cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). These are both released from your adrenal glands, located above your kidneys after they receive a signal from your pituitary gland, located in your brain. When you are facing perceived or real stress, the communication from your brain to your kidneys causes an increased amount of Cortisol and adrenaline production.
When this boost in hormone production happens, your body goes into fight or flight mode. If you have ever felt butterflies before a big date or a job interview, you know how quickly this exchange can take place within your body.
Even small stressors will keep your brain and body in a state of anticipation and anxiety. When you are going through an exceptionally stressful situation in life, this hyperarousal can cause short-term insomnia which can lead to an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, lasting for up to 3 months.
You may be wondering – if the purpose of the fight or flight response is to outrun immediate danger (such as our ancestors fighting off wild animals), what does this have to do with your stress about a major upcoming expense or a project due date? While it’s true that they’re not the same kind of experience, it is important to note that your body does not compartmentalize what type of “stress” you are going through. The way the machine works is that all stressors are treated equally. Your brain will react to quicksand the same way it reacts to your terrifying boss calling you in for a last-minute meeting at 4 pm on a Friday.
What Are You Stressed About?
Before you can even hope to fall asleep and achieve a full night of quality rest, you will have to determine what is causing you to stress. For some of us, the answer to that may be simple. For others, it may be a cumulation of various events that we can’t quite put our finger on while we’re lying in bed sleepless.
Your very first point of action is to determine your current stressor(s) and formulate a game plan. Even if you don’t know what exactly you are worried about (a form of anxiety and a stressor on its own), follow these steps to help get to the bottom of it and get you on your way to better sleep:
Write it Down. Take a few minutes before bed to handwrite your concerns. This is an activity that you can do at two different points – ideally before you are actually trying to go to sleep, but if you can’t come up with anything at first, the next best time to do it is when you are unable to fall asleep. You will undoubtedly have some thoughts about what is stressing you out when you are lying awake in the night. The benefit of this is that studies have shown that the act of writing out fears and sources of stress can help to improve our views on it as well as give some motivation for solving the problem.
Practice Stress Management. Rather than just coping with your feelings of stress, try adjusting your reaction and attitude toward what is weighing you down. Things are going to happen in life that are outside of our control, but we are better able to eliminate and solve our problems by maintaining positivity about the aspects that we can control. Most of our stresses are often fear-based, and by shifting our attitude away from these fears, we can learn to be more decisive about the resolution.
Tackle Stressors as Early as Possible. Don’t wait until the evening to open and pay all of your bills or have a confronting conversation with your partner. Doing so will likely guarantee that you will take these issues to bed with you. Rather than attempting to sleep with stress fresh on your brain, handle it in the morning so that you have the rest of the day to process it and work through a solution.
Talk About it. As a similar idea to writing it down, know that it is ok to talk to your peers about what is causing you stress. Your friends and family can be a sounding board if you’re having health concerns or worried about a project at work. Even if it doesn’t solve the problem, it may give you a better grasp on the situation by talking it out.
What Can You Do About it?
Once you’ve gotten to the root of the problem, have figured out what exactly is causing your stress, and have formulated a game plan to work on how you deal with it – it is now time to restore your body to its natural sleep pattern.
The best way to get back on track is to set yourself up for success with a sleeping routine. The idea behind developing a routine is that most techniques will often have two benefits. For each activity that you begin to include, on top of doing something that puts you into a more relaxed state in general, you’re also sending a message to your brain that it is time for sleep.
Take Some Time to Incorporate Wellness Activities
Practice Yoga – Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be flexible or have any prior training to do basic yoga. Many people begin doing yoga because they aren’t flexible. The benefits of yoga will help not only minimize your feelings of stress but will also promote better sleep. Your practice can be as simple as doing a few stretches before bedtime or following along with a video that is geared toward helping you fall asleep.
Try Meditation or Breathing Exercises – Meditation practices are said to date back thousands of years. It has been used in alternative medicine to help treat numerous ailments and illnesses and is a great choice for those who are looking for ways to beat stress as well as insomnia. The best part about it is that meditation can be tailored to work for everyone. There are several different ways to meditate, including visualization, mantras, guided or not, and using mindful breathing. Whether you are a beginner or seasoned meditation practitioner, there are various resources to help you understand and develop a good meditation/breathing practice. Most meditation techniques can be learned for free, making it an invaluable option when it comes to destressing and getting some much-needed rest.
Essential Oils. When it comes to ensuring a peaceful sleep, incorporating our other senses can prove to have increased benefits. By using aromatherapy, you can help to train your brain to prepare for bed. You have likely experienced a scent that has taken you down memory lane or smelled freshly baked bread and suddenly felt very hungry. Because our noses play an integral role in our mood and memory, using an essential oil that activates your sleep response can be a pleasant addition to your night-time routine.
Create Your Own Spa. Day spas are known for their calming, relaxing atmosphere and results. But you don’t have to spend the money to achieve the same results. You can have similar effects by simply lighting a few candles, taking a warm bath, and putting your essential oils to good use. By doing something small, like a facial mask, and giving yourself some time to relax without distraction, you can transform your bathroom into a perfectly zen, stress-free spa.
Get More Sun. Have you ever spent a relaxing day at the beach or park, and come home still feeling exhausted? This is thanks to our body’s hormones, once again. The sun triggers the release of a hormone called Serotonin, which helps to regulate our mood as well as our sleep cycle. Your body later turns Serotonin into Melatonin, which is another hormone that is largely responsible for helping us get to sleep at night. What your body is telling you is that it wants to sleep and is ready; you can encourage your brain along the way by exposing yourself to the sun and getting your hormones into production.
Get a Massage. Creating your own at-home day spa can work wonders, but if you’d like to take it a step further, book a professional massage for yourself. Massages have proven benefits of relaxation which will, in turn, encourage your body to sleep by easing the muscles that tend to tense up when we’re stressed. If you have never had a massage before, try searching in your local Facebook community for massage therapists in your area. Many hotels, sports clubs, gyms, and doctors can also be useful resources for finding the right therapist for you. Be sure to check with your insurance provider as some policies will cover massage therapy services.
Sleep Aids May Help You Fall Asleep Faster
Even the most effective night-time routine can fall short on an incredibly stressful night. Keep in mind that while you are getting yourself into better sleep habits, not everything will work every single time – and that is OK. Sometimes figuring out what works for your body is a trial and error process and you simply need to take it one sleep at a time to find out what is right for you.
If you do find yourself still lying awake after you feel you have tried everything you can, consider these suggestions that may help you get to sleep faster on a particularly rough night.
- Listen to Relaxing Music or White Noise. When a baby wakes up crying, or a restless child won’t go to sleep, one of the first options we try is to sing to them. If your parents sang nursery rhymes to you or if you’ve ever cared for a young child who you have sung to, you are familiar with the calming effects that a simple tune can have. This is because it can help to activate your nervous system, which we have learned aids in the process of falling asleep. By creating your own personalized bedtime playlist and listening to it 45 minutes before bed, you can add to the evening routine that signals to your body that it is time for sleep. An added benefit of listening to music is that it can act as a blocker for external noise if you happen to live somewhere where nearby sounds are a factor in keeping you awake.
- Drink a Cup of Tea. Depending on the kind of tea drinker you are, there are two ways you can incorporate it into your evening.
- Caffeine-Free/Sleepytime Tea – These are herbal teas which contain chamomile, lavender, valerian or other ingredients that are known for having sedative effects and are often used for relaxation. The intent isn’t to force you to fall asleep, but rather produce a soothing reaction in your body to help get you there easily.
- Green Tea – This tea is known for various health benefits, and despite having caffeine, it is highly effective for reducing stress and helping to increase your overall sleep quality. This is due to the ingredient L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea (and other supplements) which can influence the levels of Cortisol and Serotonin in our brain. The amount of caffeine in green tea varies on where/how it was made, so test it out in the morning if you are unsure about the stimulation it might give you.
- Add Supplements to Your Diet. If you are consistently having difficulty with stress and falling asleep, there may be supplements that you could be adding to your diet which may help. Valerian, Melatonin, and Magnesium are all natural supplements that are easy to find online or in stores and are often recommended to aid with the ability to fall asleep faster as well as help to increase the quality of sleep that you’re getting.
- Try Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids. As a short-term solution, several medications can be purchased over the counter to combat temporary bouts of insomnia. Stress never comes at a convenient time, and sacrificing sleep will make you no less stressed. Many sleep aids contain diphenhydramine which has sleep-inducing effects on the brain, giving you a better chance of gaining sleep during those times when the mental pressure is on, but your life doesn’t stop. You should speak with your doctor to determine if sleep aids are right for your situation, and always consult your doctor before extended use of any sleep medications.
Use Alternative Distraction Techniques
At the end of a long, stressful day, the only thing most of us want to do is switch off and forget our troubles. At times, this may be exactly what you need in order to reduce your stress.
A helpful suggestion when getting ready for sleep is to turn off the TV and limit your screen time in general. But if you’re feeling restless and stressed, sometimes this distraction is the only thing you can think of. Rather than resorting back to the screen, be it your TV or phone, look for other ways that can calm you down into a sleepy state.
Try incorporating one or all of the techniques below into your night-time routine for at least 30 minutes. These tips are perfect if you prefer to change your schedule now and then or don’t like to do the same thing over and over each night.
Listen to Audio Tapes. If the thought of leaving your TV off or not using your phone for several hours throughout the evening makes you feel even more stressed, audio tapes are an excellent solution for you. They give your brain a chance to zone out while you tune in with minimal effort. The number of audiobooks, podcasts, and even meditation guides is endless with many free options, no matter what you are searching for. You can follow along with a new story or choose a different genre every night, giving yourself the opportunity for countless hours of pre-bedtime relaxation.
Pick Up a Calming Hobby. Some hobbies are intended to be lively, engaging, and full of excitement, like salsa dancing. Skip those hobbies. When it comes to relaxing evening entertainment, choose something that is enough to keep you engaged but not overstimulated. Puzzles, adult coloring books, or even knitting can work – anything that will give you something to do that isn’t focusing on your stress.
Read a Book. This suggestion may seem obvious, but a surprising number of people do not take advantage of reading as a relaxant. It is similar to listening to an audiobook. However, it does require your brain to do a little more work. The physical act of reading the words on a page can have hypnotic results, sending people to sleep before they even realize it. Choose a book that is your designated bedtime book so that you can avoid intense storylines that require thinking or that may find themselves in your dreams. Reading is also suggested if you find yourself awake in the middle of the night and are unable to fall back to sleep right away.
Take a Walk. On an evening when the weather is ideal, taking a stroll alone or with a partner can be a positive activity that takes little effort. It is an optimal time to either let your brain work through some of your stress or not think about it at all. Taking a walk on a cool evening will also help to lower your body temperature and signal your circadian clock that it is time for bed.
Clean Your Room. Cleaning at any time is usually not high on many people’s list of things to do. But think of your bedroom as your brain hub. Sleeping is when your brain does the most regenerating and healing, and this is the place where you sleep. Cluttered room = cluttered mind. Not only is cleaning and organizing a natural de-stressor because it is oddly soothing, but you will also be setting yourself up for a fresh start to the next day. So pick up everything off the floor, throw out some old clothes you don’t wear anymore, tidy up your shelves, and prepare yourself to rest more relaxed in a clean space.
What Should You Quit?
Sometimes there are things we do throughout the day that actually contribute to our stress and inability to sleep, even without us realizing it. It is essential to have a look at your daily routine or activities and see what can be eliminated in order to decrease your stress as well as increase your chances of sleeping through the night.
In times of high stress, stop or limit yourself from doing these things:
Consuming Too Much Alcohol. While many people believe that having one or two drinks at night can help relax after a long day, this can actually be contributing to a disturbed night of rest. It may help you feel as though you are falling asleep faster, but remember that passing out is not the same as falling asleep. As the alcohol wears off, your body must adjust back to its natural sleep/wake cycle and try to fix its disrupted sleep stages. This leaves your body struggling to work through four lighter sleep and deep sleep phases, rather than the natural process of movement between them.
You Are Drinking Caffeine Throughout The Day. As you are aware, caffeine is a stimulant and should not be consumed in the afternoon if you hope to get to bed quickly. It has the benefit of helping you feel more alert, but if you are feeling especially stressed or anxious, these effects can be magnified, leaving you with an even more stressful shock as the caffeine wears off. To be safe, it’s best to limit your caffeine intake and ensure that you avoid it for roughly six to eight hours before bedtime.
There Are Stressors Inside Your Room. As a similar idea to cleaning your room before bed, it is best to remove all distractions from your bedroom if you are feeling stressed or have problems falling asleep. Having a TV in the bedroom or using it as an office space trains your brain to see your bedroom as a multifunctional recreation room, rather than a place for sleep. If possible, shift all activities that are not sleep (or sex) related to a different part of your home.
Spreading Yourself Too Thin. Many sleepless nights are spent worried about upcoming responsibilities or tasks. If you find yourself losing hours of sleep because you’re physically doing too much or you are overthinking about the things you need to do, consider adjusting your schedule. Look at areas where you can learn to say no or delegate duties to someone else. As long as you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, you will continue to be overwhelmed and exhausted.