Stress may be the one thing almost all of us have in common. According to a study by the American Institute of Stress, 80% of workers feel stress on the job, with nearly half saying they need help in learning how to manage stress. It can be hard to unwind and destress in a healthy way, but we’re here to help. In this article, we’ll discuss the relationship between sleep and stress, and highlight our top tips for reducing stress so you can enjoy better sleep and a healthier overall lifestyle.
How Stress and Sleep are Connected
There’s something called the sleep-stress cycle that many of us can likely relate to. It starts when you don’t get enough sleep. You start to feel stressed, which leads to more poor sleep, and so on and so on. The American Psychological Association conducted a study and found that up to 45% of people surveyed felt even more stressed when they didn’t get enough sleep. This stress led to feeling like their minds were racing, and feeling more sluggish during the day.
What’s more, is the research found that most Americans would be happier, healthier and safer if they had an extra 60 to 90 minutes of sleep per night. Other side effects of this cycle include feeling irritable, angry, or overwhelmed, lacking motivation or energy, and losing patience with family members. It’s clear that the cycle yields unwanted effects, but how can you break it?
We’ve got some ideas that may help.
Create a Nightly Ritual
Our sleep-wake cycle is a pattern in the body that ensures we feel tired at roughly the same time each night and wakeful around the same hour each morning. We can easily interfere with it though by consuming caffeine late in the day, looking at blue light devices in the evening, exercising vigorously within a few hours before bed, or focusing too much on stress. Because of that, it’s important to create a fixed ritual before bedtime. While you can use journaling to itemize the issues causing stress, be sure this is done several hours ahead of bedtime. Shortly before bed should be a “no worry zone” and you should do things that lead to calmness and mental ease. You can try meditation, gentle yoga, a hot bath, or any of the other tips in this article. The main goal is to cue yourself to set aside worry and focus on healthy and happy sleep. To learn more about creating a nightly ritual that works for you, click here.
Mindfulness meditation techniques encourage your brain to shift out of the “doing” mode and into “being” mode. Practicing mindfulness reduces stress by shifting focus from your thoughts and worries to where you are and what your body is doing in the present. Many describe it as “living in the moment,” but there’s more to it than that. You can visualize problems or worries as passing clouds that come and go, and you are simply observing rather than being affected by them. A simple mindfulness exercise is as follows:
- Take a comfortable position either sitting or lying down.
- Choose a “focus.” This can be a word (relax, breathe, calm, peace, etc.), a sound (ohm is a popular choice), a short prayer or relaxing poem, or a mantra such as “breathe in calmness, exhale tension.” Repeat the focus on both the inhale and exhale.
- Begin by breathing in through the nose and exhaling through the nose or mouth. Pay attention to your breathing and the focus of your choice.
- Let everything else go. If you notice you are thinking about anything other than the focus, just shift back into the mindfulness without judgement.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This 100-year old technique is a simple, effective way to learn to notice when there is stress your body and how to relax it. Progressive muscle relaxation involves working one at a time with different areas and muscle groups of the body, first tensing and relaxing them.
Here’s how it works.
First, focus on a muscle group, starting at your feet. Tense those muscles for several seconds and notice how it feels. Then release the tension all at once. Notice the contrast between the uncomfortable feeling of tension compared to how good it feels to relax. Then move up the body to the next muscle group. Repeat until you reach the top of your head. Enjoy the pleasant feelings of relaxation.
Guided Visualization/ Imagery Therapy
This can be used to create a deep sense of relaxation using the mind-body connection. In other words, if you visualize pleasant and relaxing images, you transfer this stress-free feeling to the body. Guided imagery exercises engage all the senses in a focused period of imagination and can be tailored and targeted to different goals, including to relieve physical and mental stress, to reduce anxiety, and to prepare for and bring about sleep.
There are plenty of apps that you can download for guided visualization, or you can get started here. Spending a few minutes engaged in a soothing, restful guided image journey—such as imagining floating peacefully in a calm ocean, being rocked by gentle waves and covered by a warm breeze—can help you gently separate from the stresses of the day and prepare the mind and body to sleep. Choose whatever imagery you prefer, because everyone is different.
Enjoy the Exhale
Deep, slow, breathing is an ancient, powerful way to clear the body of stress and tension, and a fantastic way to relax as part of a nightly transition to sleep.
The key is to take plenty of time as you exhale. Breathe in slowly through your nose; breathe out slowly from either your nose or your mouth. It can help to visualize your breath going all the way down your body as you breathe out. Try picturing a balloon that slowly expands as you breathe in and slowly deflates as you breathe out. You can also picture the stress leaving your body as you exhale. Enjoy the feeling of relaxation that comes with letting go of that tension as you breathe out.
Do this anytime you feel anxious or stressed out just before “lights out” to nurture better sleep.
Other Relaxation Methods for Better Sleep
You can also practice gratitude, by focusing your mind on positive aspects of the day rather than the negatives that could interfere with sleep. Doing gentle stretches and slow, deep breathing in a dimly lit room are wonderful ways to prepare the mind for rest. Even simply taking a warm bath or shower can be just the fix you need to relax before bed.
Explore which of these stress reduction strategies work best for you. It’s okay if you don’t notice positive results right away – that’s what practice is for! With practice, you’ll become aware of when you’re experiencing tension, and you’ll be able to bring on feelings of relaxation when you’re stressed during the day or trying to fall asleep at night.