When it comes to the relationship between sleep and stress, it is a double-edged sword. Not getting enough sleep causes problems related to stress to become exacerbated. But stress itself can lead to difficulty sleeping. And so the process goes on, with both stress levels and sleep problems feeding into each other.
The good news is that learning proper sleep hygiene (sleep habits) can help you to alleviate sleep problems and get a better night’s rest. That, in turn, will give your body and mind what they need in order to cope better with daily stressors.
Many of the lifestyle habits that contribute to good sleep require you to set up a regular routine in order for them to make a significant difference in your sleep problems. The real trick is to create habits that promote a healthy sleep-wake cycle all the time, not just when you are lying awake at night hoping to get drowsy.
Also, many of the sleep problems we face come back to our stress levels. Time deadlines make us feel rushed. Our workload makes us feel chronically behind. And our responsibilities can become overwhelming. These kinds of daily mental stressors really take a toll on us. And when stress hormones flood your body, they can certainly disrupt your sleep patterns.
One of the best steps you can take toward better sleep, regardless of which particular sleep problems are affecting you, is to reduce your stress level and find activities that help you relax. You need to be able to wind down before you get into bed.
If you keep yourself running ahead at full speed right up to the time you want to go to sleep, you will probably not be able to fall asleep easily. Similarly, keeping your mind running as you get into bed is not conducive to a good night’s sleep. This chapter provides some tips on how to calm your mind and body so you can get into the right mindset for good sleep.
If you don’t already have a night time routine, you should start one now. All of the suggestions below are good activities to perform as you wind down for the night.
Start your relaxation routine an hour or two before your usual bedtime
As mentioned above, if you wait until you are ready to go to sleep to start unwinding, it will take you much longer to actually get to sleep. Your mind has to go through several stages in order to achieve sleep. For some people, this is an extremely easy process. Many of us know someone who can amazingly fall asleep the second their head hits the pillow. But for the rest of us, that seems like an impossible feat.
If you have difficulty falling asleep, or staying asleep, it definitely helps to have a night time routine. Going to bed with the day’s thoughts, worries, and to-do’s still going through your mind is a recipe for sleeplessness. During your pre-bedtime routine, dim the lights. Find an activity that is not stimulating or energizing.
Do not exercise just before you go to sleep. Sometimes you may have chores that need to be completed in the evening. If that’s the case, attempt to do them calmly and in a relaxed manner rather than rushing through them, especially if you will not have much time to unwind afterward.
Start an evening bath habit
Taking a warm bath is one of the easiest ways to unwind and feel relaxed. Sure, a massage is luxurious and relaxing, but most of us can’t get one every night before bed. Instead, let the warm water ease the tension from your muscles.
You can add Epsom salts or lavender essential oil to your bath to help you enhance the relaxation experience. The magnesium in Epsom salts is absorbed through your skin, and can help to induce a sleepy state. Lavender has long been known to be a relaxing fragrance.
Stretching provides many of the same benefits of massage, as well. We build up lactic acid in our muscles during the day. And most of us have experienced knots in certain muscles. Easy stretching can help release lactic acid build-up and unlock muscle knots. Even if your stress is related to mental worries, some calm stretching before bedtime can help to relieve that worry. Our minds and bodies are quite intertwined, and releasing the tension from one often works to release tension from the other, too.
Reading is a calming activity for many people. And some even find that it helps them to become drowsy. It really doesn’t matter what you read either. Some people find that fiction helps them to forget about nagging responsibilities and stress. And other people find that information heavy reading puts them to sleep. Use whatever works for you. Just avoid any reading material that works you up.
Talk to someone
Much of the problem with stress is that we keep everything in and to ourselves. Discussing your day with someone can help you to put things in perspective. And it always helps to have a supportive friend, partner, or family member who makes you feel like you are not alone in your struggles.
We often get distracted by all the technology and entertainment available. But a simple conversation is still one of the most relaxing activities we can indulge in. And the health and life benefits of socializing with loved ones are immense.
Problems sleeping are divided roughly into two categories. You may find that you experience only one or both of these problems. The first is difficulty falling asleep.
Avoid artificial light at least an hour before bed
Much of the artificial light that we are exposed to tends to be in the blue light part of the visible light spectrum, and that includes the LED lighting used by most digital devices like smartphones, tablets, and e-readers. Television sets are also a source of blue light.
Lights in the blue spectrum simulate the attention-span boosting light provided by daytime sunlight.
What that means for your sleep patterns is that exposure to artificial lighting in the evening can trick your brain into thinking you should still be awake. Because of this, it is best to turn off the lights and devices well before you are ready to sleep.
You already know that light can keep you awake. But the effects can last for quite a while after you turn off the screens.
Try white noise
Some people find total silence unnerving. In nature, there are always some sounds, like insects and the wind. But inside a house or apartment, your walls and energy efficient windows may block out all those natural noises. And you may find yourself in nearly total silence.
Even if the silence is not unnerving, your body may be listening for those natural background noises. Trying some white noise may just help you to fall asleep and stay asleep easier. An easy way to generate white noise is turning on a fan in your room.
Some people prefer even more noticeable noise. In that case, playing a radio or mp3 player may work. But avoid using the TV to provide background sound because the light from the screen could keep you awake.
Plenty of white noise and nature sounds audio files are available for download online. Look for one that is soothing and fades into the background, without abrupt changes in sound.
Face your clock away from you
If you have experienced trouble sleeping for a while, you may have noticed that you’ve gotten into the habit of checking the time on your clock. 10:45 and you’re still awake. 11:30 and you’re still awake. 12:15 and you’re still awake. Does that clock say 1:10?
You are just torturing yourself when you do this! Forget about how long it is taking you to fall asleep. You cannot relax when you are chronically worried about how little sleep you are getting.
The lack of sleep itself is already exhausting. You do not need to add stress and guilt on top of it. You may just find that you fall asleep easier when you are not obsessing over the clock.
Cold room, warm socks
This tip may sound a little silly, but it works. Your core body temperature drops slightly when you are sleeping. You can help facilitate this by turning down the temperature in your bedroom at night.
And keeping your extremities warm also helps, so put on a pair of comfortable socks when you get ready for bed. This combination should help put you in a state conducive to falling asleep.
The second difficulty you may experience with sleep is staying asleep. That is, maybe you fall asleep easily (or maybe you don’t), but then you continuously wake throughout the night. Or you find yourself consistently waking well before you have to get out of bed. These tips can help to reduce the number of times you wake in the night and get you to stay asleep longer.
Wear a sleep mask
Your body naturally wants to sleep when it is dark. Blocking out any light in your bedroom will help keep you from being awakened in the night. If you have a partner who is using a device in the bedroom, or if your windows let in street light, putting on a sleep mask can help block out those disturbances.
Keep pen and paper by your bed
Sometimes you may be awakened by troubling thoughts or responsibilities you are afraid you will forget about.
If that seems to be a problem with you and interferes with your ability to stay asleep at night, then you may want to try writing down any thoughts that pop up as you are falling asleep or when you awaken in the night.
This can help to ease your mind because you know you won’t forget it now that it is written down. Just tell yourself that you can think about it when you wake up in the morning.
Get out of bed if you wake up
This may sound crazy, but you actually should not lie in bed if you are having trouble getting back to sleep. Lying awake in bed causes you to associate your bed with wakefulness, and that only exacerbates your sleep problems. Instead, get up and do something for a few minutes. Get a drink of water. Do some stretches. Read for a little while. And then try going back to bed when you feel drowsy enough to sleep. Your mind will begin to associate the bed only with sleeping, helping to reduce night time wakefulness.
However, do not use light-emitting devices when you get up. That means no Internet browsing, no Facebook, and no TV.
Keep a regular bedtime
If your schedule is chaotic (or you don’t have a schedule at all) and you are going to bed at a different time every night, it is going to be quite hard for your body to develop a normal sleep pattern.
Your body thrives on routines. The best time to set your bedtime is around 10 P.M. or 10:30. This tends to be when most people’s bodies naturally prepare for sleep and all the regenerative processes that improve your health.
Take a look at your mindset
After a long period struggling with sleep problems, you may come to associate sleep with negative thoughts. Those very thoughts may be preventing you from making progress with improving your sleep. The fear of not being able to fall asleep, and facing another exhausted day, can cause you to worry even more at night. You can spend so much time fretting about not being able to fall asleep, that you make it happen.
Instead, let go of the need to fall asleep easily. Allow yourself to relax about it. You have enough to worry about without worrying about sleep itself. If you happen to be experiencing insomnia, allow yourself to do something else rather than forcing yourself to try to sleep when you can’t.
Do a relaxing activity. Read and see if that makes you drowsy. Tell yourself that it is simply time to relax and rest. You will find that it is much easier to fall asleep when you’re not forcing it or worrying whether you will get enough sleep before the alarm goes off.
Get enough sunlight during the day
In addition to avoiding artificial light in the evening, it also helps to get plenty of sunlight during the day. Although you need darkness in order to initiate sleep at night, simply keeping yourself shut up in a dark room all the time is not going to be conducive to good sleep patterns.
Your body wants to be in sync with its natural sleep-wake patterns. The good news is that adding even 15 minutes of more sunlight into your day can help. Our ancestors were not constantly under the sun.
Even they sought shelter somewhere in the shade. But by exposing your body to sunlight during the day, you give your circadian rhythm a guide to measure whether it is time to be awake or asleep.
Is there a best time of day to get in your sun exposure? Yes. Early morning light is actually the most effective at properly setting your internal clock and helping you get to sleep easier at night. That being said, any sun exposure during the day is better than none at all.
Exercise during the day
Yes, exercise before bed is associated with the release of adrenaline and will make it more difficult for you to fall asleep. But daytime exercise is actually quite good for your sleep patterns. Just don’t expect it to cure your insomnia in one day. You have to make exercise a regular part of your routine in order for it to rebalance your sleep cycle.
With these sleep tips, you will be able to fortify your body for the stresses of your day. Additionally, you should be better prepared to let go the day’s stress at bedtime and get to sleep easier. And that means overall lower stress levels for you.