How does stress affect your sleep?

Our resident Sleep Expert, Christabel Majendie shares her sleep busting tips.

Feelings of stress and worry can wreak havoc on your sleep. Stress leads to hyperarousal of the nervous system making it more difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Stress can also affect the quality of your sleep so you have less deep sleep and are more likely to wake up from environmental disturbances such as noise or light.

It’s important to note that short-term sleep problems lasting a few days are common and do not mean you have insomnia. However, there are things you can do to reduce the likelihood of these sleep issues and to restore better quality sleep. Below I have set out a few tips to help you combat stress-related sleep disturbances using a natural approach.

Have a proper wind down routine in the evening

You cannot expect to drop off into a restful sleep if you work right up until bedtime or if you busy yourself with tasks then jump straight into bed without a period of relaxation.  A wind down period is needed to allow arousal systems in the brain to decrease their activity and to allow the sleep systems to kick into place. I would recommend starting this wind down at least an hour before bed by stopping all work and tasks, finishing all phone calls and emails. Then, choose something relaxing to do such as reading a book or magazine, listening to music, taking a warm bath or relaxation techniques (see below). Television before bed is allowed but be aware of what you are watching; avoid exciting, scary or worrying content or anything that is likely to lead to negative emotions such as fear, anxiety or low mood.

Practise some relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques are a great way to relax your mind and body to prepare you for sleep. Not only do these techniques work to distract your mind from racing thoughts but they will also have a physiological effect to relax your body. Try deep breathing from your abdomen, with one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. Breathe in through your nose, hold for a few seconds then breathe out through your mouth, exhaling as much air as possible. If you are breathing deeply, the hand on your abdomen should rise and fall as you breathe and the one on your chest should not move too much. To eliminate as much carbon dioxide as possible, breathe out longer than you breathe in by imagining the sides of a rectangle; breathe in the length of the short side and breathe out the length of the longer side. Each time you breathe out, think the word 'relax'.

Mindfulness

Recent research indicates that mindfulness techniques, involving being aware of the present moment, can help with sleep problems. Find a comfortable place to sit down or lie, close your eyes, if you like, and get settled. Bring your awareness to your senses. Spend about ten seconds focusing on each sense. Notice what you can hear, feel, smell, taste and see, if your eyes are open. List in your head everything you notice. If you can’t sense something, for example you can’t smell anything, simply list this fact then move on. If your mind wanders off, that’s fine, simply notice this has happened and return to noticing your senses.

Thought Evaluation

What we think influences how we feel and how we behave.  So how we think about a stressful situation can influence how we feel about it and what we do in response. If you can learn to change the way you interpret a difficult situation you can reduce your stress levels. For example, do you find yourself believing the worst case scenario (e.g. I won’t sleep all night)? Do you find yourself ‘fortune-telling’ then worrying about that imagined scenario (e.g. I’m not going to be able to talk at that meeting tomorrow because I can’t get to sleep)? These types of unhelpful thinking can actually have a negative impact on your sleep.  If you fall into these thinking traps you may benefit from evaluating your thoughts to spot unhelpful thinking and then challenge the likelihood and accuracy of these thoughts. There are always alternative ways of looking at a problem and there are many different outcomes to a situation.

Exercise

Exercise is a great stress buster as it counteracts hormones such as adrenaline and cortisolthat are released to prepare the body for a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Generally people who are physically fitter and healthier tend to have better quality sleep. Ideally, take exercise in natural daylight as this helps our body clock to synchronise with the day/night cycle by influencing the production of melatonin. Be careful not to exercise too close to bedtime though, so avoid it in the few hours before bed, as you need to allow your body temperature to return to normal in order to aid sleep.

Make your bedroom a sleep zone

You need to make your bedroom a restful place where you feel safe and relaxed. Often, this is not the case for individuals experiencing sleep problems and the bedroom becomes associated with negative feelings. Ensure you do not use your bedroom for wakeful activities such as working, eating, watching TV or talking on the phone. Make your bedroom comfortable and tidy with clean bedding, pillows to suit your individual taste and a good quality mattress that is not past its sell by date. Allow your bedroom to become a place of respite at night where you can sleep peacefully away from the stresses of the day.

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