The Sleep-Stress Connection: How to Get the Rest You Need
Sleep and stress are intricately interconnected.
When you’re chronically stressed, your body releases chemicals that can interfere with you ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. If you worry, ruminate, and feel anxious in the evening, you may further trigger the stress response just when you need to calm your mind for a good night’s rest.
On the other hand, if you’re not getting sufficient sleep, your body will increase the production of stress chemicals. That’s because counter-chemicals are released in deep sleep which signal your body to turn down the production of stress hormones. So if you regularly deprive yourself of sleep, you’ll increase your stress levels.
Either way, you can get stuck in a vicious cycle. Poor sleep leads to more stress which leads to more disturbed sleep. Or, more stress leads to poor sleep which leads to more stress.
The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation
There's so much pressure to keep going in our culture that many people sweep aside health issues like sleep deprivation until they take on a monstrous form. Same with stress. It can seem like a fact of life or impossible to overcome.
But there are consequences when we don't listen to our body or our common sense.
Sleep deprivation makes it difficult for you to function optimally during the day, causing steady declines in cognitive ability, attention span, and motor skills. The results of sleep disturbances are cumulative, increasing more with each passing day. You may not even be aware of the decline in your performance, but others will surely take note.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg because sleep deprivation can lead to a higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke and a long list of other serious and even life-threatening problems. Too much ongoing stress can lead to many of the same kinds of serious health problems.
In this fast-paced world, people have begun to glorify pushing themselves beyond reasonable limits. But clearly, doing so puts your health and happiness in jeopardy.
Are you ready to get the rest you need?
Let’s look at some simple ways you can improve your sleep, ones that may reduce your stress levels too. If you need more help with stress reduction, check out my self-paced course, Living with Ease, The Mindful Way to Less Stress.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
According to Harvard Medical School:
Although there is some genetic variation, most adults need between 7.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep per 24-hour period to function optimally.
Data from the National Sleep Foundation, however, reveals that many adults sleep less than 7 hours on weeknights and just the minimum of 7.5 hours on the weekends. In fact, a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than 40 million working adults in the US are sleeping just six hours or less each night.
How about you, are you skimping on sleep or too stressed to fall asleep at night?
12 Ways to Improve Your Sleep
I’ve struggled with sleep deprivation myself, especially due to chronic illness and chronic pain. These are some of my favorite solutions.
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1. What keeps you awake? Your sleep and stress solutions may lie in the answer to this question. So take some time with it. Be honest with yourself. Then adjust your behaviors based on your response.
On the other hand, the answer may not be clear. If that’s the case, try out some of the suggestions below and see which ones work for you.
2. Wake up earlier. If you wake up earlier, it’s more likely you’ll feel ready to fall asleep when you put your head on the pillow at night. Adjust slowly by waking up just 15 minutes earlier the first week and then another 15 minutes each subsequent week, until you reach your desired wake-up time.
If you can, wake up with the sun. The circadian rhythm, which controls the human sleep-wake cycle is positively triggered by light. As soon as you wake up, open your shades. If you have time, go outside for a few moments and enjoy a full infusion of light.
If you use an alarm clock, place it out of reach so you have to get up to turn it off. You’ll be less likely to get back in bed to snooze.
3. Write out your worries. If worries are keeping you awake at night, set aside a specific time each day – 20 to 30 minutes – to think about your concerns and explore solutions. Then intentionally avoid thinking about those worries for the rest of the day, especially in the evening.
If worry does arise, remind yourself you’ll focus on it during your special worry/solution period. Research has shown this to be an effective way to reduce worry. For other ideas read: 5 Effective Antidotes to Worry.
4. Create a cozy, uncluttered sleeping space. Clutter creates stress emotionally, mentally, and psychically, at least for me. I keep bedroom furnishings to a minimum: the bed, side tables, and lamps. No chairs, sofas, or bookshelves that easily catch clutter.
Since color can effect your mood, swap out bright sheets with bold patterns for calming solid colors like pastel blue, green, yellow, or pink. Same for your bedroom walls.
Sleep experts say to keep your bedroom quiet, dark, and cool as well. If needed, use ear plugs or a “white noise” machine to reduce the volume of external sounds and be sure to close your curtains at night.
To keep distractions to a minimum, leave your electronic devices, work papers, and television in another room.
5. Decrease excitatory foods and increase calming foods. A light snack before bedtime can help you get a better night’s rest.
Foods that contain tryptophan, melatonin, or magnesium promote sleep. Some of the best foods to help you sleep include: dairy, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, oatmeal, turkey, whole grain bread and other carbohydrates, honey, bananas, cherries (especially tart ones), pineapple, and oranges. I often have a small handful of almonds near bedtime.
The worst foods for a good night’s sleep include alcohol, coffee and other sources of caffeine like cola, black tea, chocolate, some medications, spicy foods, and fatty foods. Be sure to remove caffeine from your diet for at least six hours before bedtime.
6. Drink sleep enhancing herbal tea. It’s a good idea to stop fluids a few hours before bedtime, but a cup of calming tea earlier in the evening can have a beneficial effect on sleep. Lemon balm, passionflower, and chamomile are known for their sleep enhancing benefits. Or try a sleep-inducing blend like Sleepytime, Bedtime, or Get Some ZZZ’s.
Herbs can have side effects, however, so be sure to check with your doctor before use.
7. Wind down early in the evening. Set aside at least an hour to wind down before bed. Lower the lights, stop using electronic devices, and turn off the TV.
A regular bedtime ritual will signal your mind that it’s time to go to sleep. Develop a relaxing routine that works for you. It could be light reading, a warm bath, listening to soothing music, or setting out your clothes for the next day. Whatever you decide, employ your bedtime ritual regularly for best effect.
8. Use relaxing essential oils. Put a few drops of a good quality essential oil on your pillowcase or use an essential oil diffuser to spread a calming scent in your bedroom. The best essential oils for sleep include lavender, vertiver, Roman chamomile, and bergamont. We actually have a few bundles of vertiver growing here on our land. The aroma is so unique: sweet, earthy, woody. If you find it too powerful, try lavender or chamomile instead.
Be sure to use certified, pure therapeutic grade oils. Cheap essential oils are made from synthetics rather than actual plant ingredients and can cause more harm than good.
Essential oils are potent. Read these essential oil safety tips if you aren’t familiar with how to use them. And, if you’re on medication, have a medical condition, or are pregnant, check with your medical doctor first.
9. Get out of your head and into your body. When I asked my Facebook followers what keeps them up at night, several said, “thinking” and “over-thinking.”
If thinking is keeping you awake at night, try moving your attention from your head to your heart or to the area 3 finger-widths below the navel, called the “dan tien” in traditional Chinese medicine and many martial arts. You will naturally have fewer thoughts. Read: Drop Into Your Heart: It's Easier Than You Think.
When you find yourself thinking again, bring your mind back to your heart or the dan tien. This a simple but effective practice. It must be done repeatedly, however, to form a new habit, but do so gently.
You could also try a body scan, which some people find very relaxing. Some find the awareness of pain or discomfort unsettling, especially at first, but this may decrease with time and practice. Read: Be Still, Be Well: A Simple Practice of Mindfulness.
Progressive muscle relaxation can also help with some causes of insomnia such as restlessness and racing thoughts. Here’s a simple how-to guide on progressive muscle from the Mayo Clinic:
Progressive muscle relaxation can reduce muscle tension from stress. First, find a quiet place free from interruption. Tense each muscle group for at least five seconds and then relax for up to 30 seconds. Repeat before moving to the next muscle group. Practice this technique any time you feel stress.
I personally love the Bone Dreaming Meditation (CD) which is meant to help with relaxation, insomnia, and stress-related conditions. It puts me right to sleep.
10. Take sleep supporting supplements, for the short run only. I’ve tried several different natural supplements for sleep with interesting results.
Popular ones include lemon balm (enhances lucid dreaming; it's also called "melissa"), valerian root (considered safe and gentle), and GABA amino acid. I favor GABA amino acid. Although some say it doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier, I feel certain it crosses mine.
Proceed with caution when it comes to using supplements because they have side effects, can interact with your medication, and may not be favorable for certain conditions. It’s always best to check with your doctor first.
I know this to be the case. I react strongly to some supplements so I always read up on them first in the University of Maryland Complimentary and Alternative Medicine Guide.
11. Check for adrenal fatigue. If you’re tired all the time and have a hard time falling or staying asleep, you might consider the possibility of adrenal fatigue. According to Dr. James L. Wilson:
Adrenal fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms, known as a syndrome, that results when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level. Most commonly associated with intense or prolonged stress, it can also arise during or after acute or chronic infections, especially respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis or pneumonia. As the name suggests, its paramount symptom is fatigue that is not relieved by sleep but it is not a readily identifiable entity like measles or a growth on the end of your finger.
Mainstream medicine does not accept adrenal fatigue as a diagnosis, aside from full blown Addison’s disease, but it is commonly treated in naturopathic medicine.
If your adrenals aren’t working at optimum, cortisol (remember that pesky stress hormone?) can be released at the wrong times and thus keep you awake at night. I’ve had lower functioning adrenals for years as a by-product of other health issues. Reading Adrenal Fatigue, the 21st Century Syndrome helped me take positive steps to regain energy.
12. Surrender. No matter what you do, there may still be times when you’re unable to sleep. That’s true for me. When those times happen, I surrender. Fighting against it only creates more disturbance and stress.
I do my best to rest even though I may not be sleeping because rest itself can be restorative. I use the time as opportunity to practice presence. If I need to, I get up for a few hours and engage in a light activity until I feel sleepy. If I miss several hours of sleep, I linger in bed in the morning to catch up or take a nap in the early afternoon.
You Deserve a Good Night's Rest!
Changing your sleep patterns will take a significant commitment, but that’s self-love and self-care, isn’t it?
If you find it difficult to establish a healthy sleep routine, it might be time to look more deeply into what’s holding you back.
Are you running yourself ragged trying to meet other peoples’ expectations?
Are your own expectations causing you to put too much on your plate?
Is your inner critic always pushing you to do more?
Do you feel unworthy of a good night’s rest?
On the other hand, sleep issues can be a sign or symptom of other medical conditions that need to be addressed. If you’re not able to establish a healthy sleep cycle using simple tips like the ones above, be sure to check with a medical professional.
This is only a small sampling of sleep hacks, ones I’ve used myself. I hope you find them helpful. As always, the key is to find the method or mix of methods most suited to you.
I wish you a good night’s sleep so you can meet the new day fully restored. And if stress is bringing you down, check out my self-paced e-course for more help:
Living with Ease: Start Now!
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like my course: Living with Ease, The Mindful Way to Dissolve Stress.
Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious! Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free resources in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always. With love, Sandra