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How to Sleep Better and Reduce Stress

Posted Nov 01 2009 10:01pm

Sleep is perhaps one of the most loved and hated activities on earth.  On the one hand it takes up a lot of our time, makes us less productive, and can preoccupy our thoughts if something disrupts it.  On the other hand, sleep is nourishing to the entire body and it is also absolutely necessary.  Learning how to get sleep, even in the face of anxiety, depression and stress is a critical component of any strategy aimed at recharging your emotional battery and living a less anxious life.

The Dali Lama once said that “sleep is the best meditation” and as most of us know meditation can help reduce or in some cases even eliminate our emotional and spiritual difficulties.  So what is it about sleep that helps and what exactly can you do to get better, easier, healing sleep?

First, let me briefly highlight why getting enough sleep is so important.  Most people may be surprised to learn that getting less sleep does not only increase fatigue, stress, anxiety, and irritability it can also increase mortality risk more than heart disease, high blood pressure or smoking.  Losing as little as an hour of sleep can impair memory, alertness, and energy levels.

As many as 70 million Americans suffer from some kind of sleep disturbance of some kind.  And we’re not just talking insomnia here, but also things like taking a long time to fall asleep, sleeping very few hours, and waking up frequently throughout the night.  Not getting enough sleep is a big deal and unfortunately for too many people that suffer from anxiety and depression this is a problem that just won’t go away.  And so what is the main problem when it comes to sleep disturbances you might ask? In a word - stress.

Psychological stress of any kind can disturb sleep, now multiply that by ten when you suffer from anxiety and or depression.  After all, what is anxiety and depression at its most basic level?  Pure stress.  The kind that, yup you guessed it, keeps you up at night.  So let’s explore how you can improve upon or depending on your circumstance maybe even prevent sleep problems.

1. Before you lay your head down to sleep take a moment to clear your thoughts.  If, like I believe, this is all about stress then you must take a few minutes to purposefully relax, take in deep breaths, and lay down the burden of the previous day.  You must make an effort to relinquish your death grip on the worry, ‘what if’s’, and rumination that you indulged in earlier.  Sounds complicated but basically you need to clear your mind.

2.  Watch what you eat prior to bedtime.  If you have issues with anxiety and stress the last thing you need before bed is sugar, caffeine, alcohol or any other substance that will evoke extreme highs or lows.  In addition, as an anxiety sufferer you may have issues with GERD or heartburn so stay away from foods that are known to upset your stomach.  Sounds simple enough but you’d be surprised how many people have that late night snack and don’t consider its possible affects on their sleep patterns.

3.  Make sure your bed isn’t a lump of rocks.  I know that beds are not the cheapest purchase in the world that you can make but this really does matter.  If you’re sleeping on a ten year old hand me down you might want to consider an upgrade.  And if money is a problem then talk to friends and family that might be able to either give you an old (but better) bed, or maybe help fund your better sleep campaign.

4. Make a schedule and stick to it.  Going to bed and waking up at the same time every night can bring you into a rhythm and help to reset your internal clock.

5. Get plenty of exercise.  You don’t have to go to the gym everyday or become a power lifter to get the benefits of exercise.  Just 30 minutes a day of light to moderate exercise (i.e., increase your heart rate) can help produce endorphins that give a sense of well being and relaxation.  The bottom line is that exercise can help you get to sleep sooner and stay there until morning.

6. Set the right conditions.  If you like it dark then turn off all the lights.  Have a partner to contend with?  Consider wearing a sleep mask and or ear plugs to tune out any unwanted distractions.  Don’t just get annoyed with that loud neighbor get smart and adapt.

7. If things get tough take a warm bath.  You don’t have to soak for hours but a quick 10-15 minute warm shower will relax your muscles, reduce tension and relax you in general.

8. Noise.  Surprisingly some folks like it noisy in their bedrooms just before falling asleep.  You can try white noise machines, soothing music, or even television with low volume set to turn off in 30-60 minutes.  The latter option is not really liked by sleep sanctuary proponents, but I say if noise and dim light is what you need then go ahead and do what works.

9. Sleep Accessories.  In this case we are not talking leg warmers, but rather comfortable sheets, suitable pillows, comfortable sleep wear.  You have to be comfortable.

10. Up keep.  Make sure that your sleep quarters make you feel good.  If you have tons of clutter all over the place this could affect your mood, even cause you some stress.  Unless you actually like things out of order having things organized and in their proper place can create order and peace.

11. Medication. You can purchase over the counter sleep aides or you can get a more powerful prescription.  But in either case if things are so hard that you feel you need medication to sleep be sure to consult your doctor first.  You want to know what works and what does not, but more importantly you want to stay safe. Beware of addiction.

12. Light Therapy. In a nutshell light therapy involves exposing you to bright artificial light that is supposed to reproduce daylight conditions and help reset your internal clock.  The theory is that light therapy can help create regular sleep patterns and get you to sleep sooner.

13. Don’t smoke.

14. Do not bring your work to bed.  Do you really need a reminder of why you’re stressed to begin with?  The bedroom is for relaxation and sleep, not work.

15. Read. I don’t know about you but if I can’t sleep picking up a copy of an old college text book equals lights out.  Anything with dense prose will do.

16. Visualization.  This is perhaps one of my all time favorite.  When you lay down take a mental picture of what you would like to be in life, the more far out the better and run with the thought.  What is the perfect you?  What is your perfect state of mind?  Pursue that thought into a waking dream.

17. No problem analyzing.  When in bed avoid the anxious thinking of your day by refocusing your attention elsewhere.  This ties into visualization but its also its own entry.  Try not to consider what went wrong that day or what might go wrong tomorrow.  Live in that moment and keep your attention there.

18. Sex. If you have a partner then consider sex.  Sex is a great way to reduce tension, stress, and release all the things weighing you down.  It is the ultimate here and now activity and its free!

19. Breathing exercises.  Doing breathing exercises like belly breathing and similar techniques can calm your body, mind and don’t require a lot of preparation or set up.

20. Lying in bed with your eyes open?  Don’t focus on the clock, don’t start pacing, be patient.  If need be get out of bed and watch t.v. for 30 minutes, meditate, then try again.

Summary

Sleep is critical to good physical and mental health.  Learning different techniques to help you sleep I think is the key.  You may have to experiment and tinker a bit with all the available methods of better sleep but just understand that you don’t have to go without sleep.  So how much sleep do you need?

There is a growing body of research that suggest that we all should get between 6.5 to 8 hours of sleep a night.  Keep in mind that both people that sleep too much and those that don’t sleep enough suffer from higher rates of all significant types of ailments like cancer and heart disease for example.  Also, don’t feel pressured to get 8 hours of sleep every night.  This seems to have become the magic number but getting a little less is actually more ideal.  Generally you want to sleep until you are rejuvenated and not more.  In this way quality is just as important as quantity.

Ultimately you have to do what works for you.  If you have been struggling for any prolonged amount of time be sure to speak with your doctor.  Above all, if you suffer with sleep disturbance don’t lose hope.  Educate yourself, be proactive and be patient.

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