Stress and Sleep…Not Letting One Impact the Other
Life’s daily stresses can be extremely corrosive to good sleep! How and why? Stressors create arousal that doesn’t facilitate sleep. Your brain is fully on trying to work through your problems and challenges. Your mind is literally at work versus winding down for sleep. Your brain also signals your body when you are stressed. Our natural “flight or fight” responses kick in. You brain is telling your body to “get ready!” Your brain is telling your body that, “we’re going to have to do something about this issue!” The issue historically had to do with a physical danger like a predator trying to attack us. Nowadays, it might be a work deadline or preparing for a long commute. However, our body still responds to stress the same way…as if it’s trying to escape a tiger. You can tell if you are too stressed for sleep if you feel any of the following:
- Your brain just keeps cycling through thoughts. You literally can’t turn your mind off. This behavior means that your mind is at work, and is not preparing for sleep or incapable of easily preparing for sleep.
- If your muscles are tense, you can also assume that you’re in a stressed state that will make it hard for you to fall asleep.
- Finally, if you notice that your heart rate is up; you’re likely in a stressed state.
So, what can we do about the stress that’s eating into your healthful sleep…
First of all, set a firm bed time for each night along with a wake time. Usually, our wake times are dictated by our obligations such as work and family. Our bedtimes are more in our control and are often the ones that we don’t stick to. A clear first step is to set a strict bedtime and work to sticking to it. Just like an exercise routine where you may miss a workout, you may miss a few days and stay up later than you planned. Instead of giving up, keep trying. Work on setting streaks where you try to get as many days as possible in a row where you hit your target bedtime. Maintaining this routine will train your body and mind that it’s time for bed at a certain time just as your body is familiar with when it’s time to eat. You’re working to get your brain to slow down in preparation for shutting down.
Next, create space between when your brain is fully on and when it’s time for bed. Shoot for a 2 hour buffer. That means that if you are planning to go to bed at 10pm, then you start winding down around 8pm. Winding down means not engaging in activity that is going to rev up your brain. Such activities include watching TV, surfing the Internet, and calling friends and family. Instead, try reading or listening to music.
Finally, make sure your bedroom is a place of rest. Make sure it’s uncluttered, doesn’t have distractions like TV (or computers, tablets, and even your phone when it’s not in sleep mode), is dark, is quiet, and has a comfortable sleep surface or mattress.
You can manage your stress through a variety of techniques not explored here. However, training your body to box out those stressors so that they don’t impact your sleep is a good first step.
Stress is not compatible with sleep. Stress management should be a key component of your personal wellness efforts. However, start by defending healthful sleep. Being rested will do 2 things. First it will help you increase your capacity to handle life’s stressors because you’ll be well rested. Second, sleep will serve as your first line de-stressing activity because you’ll give you mind time to stop working and relax.