What is the number one problem that interferes with people’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep? Yes, it’s managing stress and/or anxiety. Life can be stressful due to all sorts of circumstances: family, money, job, self, and a host of threats Life decides to throw at you and mess with your wellbeing. It can be overwhelming at times.
When the body is stressed or anxious, the body undergoes several changes. The most significant is release of the hormone cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone. When you sleep well, this hormone returns to normal levels. If you don’t, you wake more often, lose out on REM sleep, and generally put yourself at higher risk for things like weight gain, infections, impaired memory, high blood pressure, and fatigue. Needless to say, it’s not healthy to get stuck in the loop of stress reducing your sleep which causes stress which reduces your sleep, over and over.
5 METHODS TO MANAGE STRESS
There are a number of ways however, to manage stress and anxiety before pulling the covers over your head and wishing the world away (if only, right?). There is a fundamental reason why these methods are helpful. Stress and anxiety generally stem from an overreaction to a perceived future threat or danger. It’s your “fight or flight” response kicking into overdrive over a negative “what if” and the perceived lack of power or control over addressing it. One of the main ways to handle that is by pulling your mind back into the present moment, at least for the purpose of getting to sleep. Here are my top 5 methods (in no particular order) based on my research.
Meditation. There are a half dozen or more ways to approach meditation, all designed to create a greater sense of self-awareness and well-being. These fall along the spectrum of basic breathing to achieve calm and focus, up to finding a greater sense of place, purpose, and connection with the greater world. One of the great things about meditation practices is that you can do them anytime and anywhere, but for the purposes of helping you de-stress before bedtime, mindfulness meditation may be the most effective. Its goal is to make you focus on the here and now, setting other thoughts aside without judgement. When your goal is sleep, setting the world aside is exactly what’s needed.
Yoga. We typically think of yoga as a physical expression, but in reality, it’s a practice that seeks to harmonize mind, body, and soul. There are a number of styles and methods to yoga, much like with meditation, so it would be beneficial to explore a bit to find out what works best for your circumstances. It can run the spectrum from gentle to strenuous, so be mindful of your current physical condition. For sleep, you aren’t looking for a workout or to push any physical limits. You want poses that are going to promote relaxation and calm. If you want something more meditative, try yoga nidra, which is a guided sleep meditation.
Environment. Where you sleep can make all the difference in the world. Everything about it should be conducive to sleeping, appealing to all of your senses.
- The bed. Invest in a quality mattress and pillow. Seriously, all the other efforts in the world won’t help you if you aren’t physically comfortable in the bed. The bedding should be an inviting color, as well as the rest of the room, blues and greens work well for this.
- Organize and clean your bedroom. Clutter is stressful and you want to be able to easily move around if you get up late at night.
- Lighting. Sleep in darkness, using a sleep mask if necessary (that morning light before you want to get up? ugh!). If you need a night light, make it dim. Prior to bed, dim the lights. No white or blue lighting. Shut down any extraneous light sources at least 30 min before bed, including phones, tv’s, etc.
- Sound. White noise machine or device playing environmental sounds like rain or the ocean. Something to drown out incidental sounds that might wake you up and you won’t focus on, unless for some reason you need to be woken up (baby monitor and the like).
- Smell. There are a number of ways to scent your room, from essential oils to incense to candles. Find something that works. Lavender is a soothing scent. Personally, I like woodsy scents.
- Temperature. Keep it cool, 66-68 degrees F. Cooler body temperature helps signal sleep time to your body.
- Air quality. Pet hair, dust mites, humidity levels. These are all things that can interfere with sleeping well. Clean often. Get a dehumidifier or humidifier.
Journal writing. I’m a fiction writer on the side, so I find the act of writing helps me to manage stress. Get something you want and like to write in, and a pen you love to hold with a color of ink you enjoy seeing on the page. Don’t do this on a device unless you have no other option. Trust me, it’s not the same. The physical act of writing, particularly for emotional writing, makes a difference. Write down the stressors, the anxieties, and the fears. Put those worst case scenarios, nagging worries, and everything haunting your brain before bed onto the page and don’t worry about how it looks or reads. The words are for you. Envision yourself literally placing all of these concerns in the book for safe-keeping until morning. You don’t need them in bed, and trust me, they’ll be just fine there until you get up.
Self-awareness. This takes some work. It’s not easy, but self-awareness, if you can achieve it, may be the most potent way to manage stress and anxiety. Why? Because it allows you to see what is really going on with yourself. It gives you a much needed perspective on your life and current circumstances. Think of it like being lost on a road, and you can suddenly pull back and get a bird’s eye view of where you are and see where you’ve and where you can go and how you might be able to get there. It offers clarity, and for stress and anxiety, where a sense of power and control over your situation is lacking, it can do wonders.
There are a couple of potentially helpful items that I wanted to mention which don’t warrant their own category necessarily, but folks may want to look into. From what I’ve researched, both of these things deserve consideration. The first is a weighted blanket, a heavier than normal blanket that uses the effects of pressure to calm your heart rate and lower stress. Think of it as being hugged while you sleep. Another is a supplement called Ashwagandha. It’s a root extract used in Ayurveda (Indian natural healing) that you can get from most supplement stores and has been used for centuries to manage stress, depression, and other maladies, and the research indicates that it does indeed have a positive effect with decent dosage. As with any supplement, use with caution, as many do not have research into long term effects.
PLAN FOR CHANGING YOUR SLEEP
It is always a good idea, in my opinion, to plan out whatever changes you want to make in your life, even if they are minor ones, and I will be the first to admit that I could be a lot better at this. Whether you voice it into your phone, write it down in a journal, or tell it to a friend, get the thoughts out of your head and into the world. It gives them a substance you wouldn’t otherwise have, and has the effect of helping you to be accountable for them. It also allows you to not forget them, which if you are absent-minded like me, is a big bonus.
Analyze your situation, define a strategy, try it out, make adjustments, try again, and repeat. Do it in small, incremental steps. It’s a basic course of action that works with many of life’s problems. Reward yourself for things that work or go well, and figure out how to address things that don’t without judging yourself. You may make a plan here to manage your stress and find it doesn’t address it, even after several attempts. Talk to someone then, a friend, loved one, wellness coach, doctor, or otherwise. Life isn’t a solo effort, so asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and sleep wellness is worth the effort. Your life will be better for it!