Sleep and Stress: A Bad Romance
Stress and sleep are not compatible.
Stress disrupts sleep, leading to a whole host of other problems besides grogginess (and a damn foul mood).
- Causes accidents and disasters
- Impairs many important cognitive functions
- Increases risk of many serious health problems
- Kills sex drive
- Contributes to depression
- Ages skin
- Makes you forgetful
- Leads to weight gain
- Impairs judgment
- Increases risk of death
All of that leaves us feeling… Stressed. The cycle gets vicious fast.
It’s a nightmare.
You’ll be much better prepared to address what’s causing you stress (and to do pretty much everything else) if you get a good night’s sleep.
For that, you need sleep hygiene.
Sleep Hygiene to the Rescue
I love the term ‘sleep hygiene.’ It sounds like sleep has gotten as rank as an armpit in desperate need of a shower. (In some ways, this is accurate. I’ve had sleep problems on and off for decades. They make me desperate. And they stink.)
So what is it, exactly?
Sleep hygiene refers to the physical environment and behavior associated with getting good quality sleep – and being alert and able to function throughout the day.
Better than Drugs
When it comes to treating insomnia, sleep hygiene is actually more effective than medication – without side effects.
Why not sleep meds?
Sleep drugs make people feel foggy. They also disrupt the normal sleep cycle, so you get less quality sleep. They cause sleep rebound effects (i.e., your sleep problems worsen when you stop taking it) and can lead to psychological and physical addiction. Last, drugs only work as long as you take them.
Sleep hygiene, on the other hand, is safe, can be easily used every single night of your life, isn’t addictive, and enhances both the quality and quantity of your sleep.
If you want feel better fast, ditch the Ambien and clean up your sleep.
Bed = Sleep
One of the biggest goals of sleep hygiene is to train the brain to associate being in bed with sleep. The stronger this association, the better your sleep will be.
To accomplish this, the only thing you should do in bed is sleep. Nothing else (except sex – but if you have sleep problems, strongly consider moving sex to a more exotic locale). When you can’t fall asleep or back to sleep, get out up. Otherwise, you’re obsessing about why you can’t sleep.
All other activities and objects are removed from the bed area. When your sleep and stress level improve, you can go back to TV watching, reading, gymnastics, or whatever else you do in bed. But for now, they need to happen elsewhere.
Your Day Affects Your Night
What you do during the day has a big effect on your night.
Daytime sleep hygiene recommendations include:
Maintain routine. Set a standard bedtime and wake-up time, regardless of the day of the week. Yes, it’s a pain to get up early on the weekend, but when you sleep in on Saturday and Sunday morning, it’s hard to fall asleep Sunday night – and you literally give yourself Monday morning jet lag. Sleep in for an hour or so, but not much more.
Avoid naps. This seems brutal, but if you push through fatigue, you’ll be tired at night, when you want to be sleeping. If you absolutely must nap to function, keep it under an hour, before 2pm.
Reduce caffeine. When people are stressed, they often increase their caffeine intake, sleep more poorly, and then have more java to be alert. Instead, eliminate caffeine entirely or cut down – and never have it after lunchtime. Reduce gradually to minimize the impact (and avoid the brain-crushing headaches of caffeine withdrawal).
Eat a healthy diet. Increase your intake of vegetables and lean protein. Decrease sugar, processed items, and junk food. Don’t eat a heavy meal within several hours of bedtime.
Exercise early and regularly. Regular exercise decreases arousal, lowers body temperature (post-workout), and adjusts circadian rhythms. Because it temporarily increases alertness, however, don’t do it close to bedtime.
Avoid alcohol. Alcohol shortens sleep cycles and decreases deep, restorative sleep. Either abstain or make your last call at least 4 hours before going to bed.
How to Prepare the Bedroom
Put on Barry White, smooth your best Egyptian cotton sheets, don your sexy negligee, light some candles… Oh, wait. Wrong post.
You will still focus on the ambiance, but in a slightly different way (plus, you’re having sex somewhere else, remember?)
Keep the room slightly cool. Room should be between 60 and 68 degrees to cool core body temperature and induce sleepiness. Ensure blankets are a comfortable weight and warmth. Wear socks if your feet get cold, as this can be a common cause of mid-night awakenings.
Clear bedside table except for a clock and/or phone.
Switch phone to airplane mode so it doesn’t light up or vibrate.
Hide the clock (and any other digital lights). These lights are powerfully strong, so put something over the clock or face it toward the wall.
Use earplugs. Foam ones are available everywhere. If earplugs cause pain, try a smaller size – usually labeled for women) and make sure you’re not pushing them in too far.
Wear an eye mask if your bedroom is bright or it’s summer.
The Bedtime Routine
It’s important to follow the same routine every night. When you do, the brain recognizes the sequence as a sleepytime signal.
Wash your face at least an hour before bed. If you wait until you’re nodding off on the couch to scrub down, you’ll wake yourself up splashing water on your face.
Turn off all screens 30-60 minutes out – all TVs, phones, iPads, etc. Phone should go to airplane mode. If you want to read, get actual books.
Lower or turn off lights 30 minutes before bed. Darkness tells the brain it’s bedtime.
(Do these outside the bedroom. Once your sleep improves, you can go back to your normal, bed-snacking ways.)
Snack. Have a bedtime snack with protein and/or a warm, decaffeinated beverage such as steamed milk or herbal tea.
Light stretches. Do some calming yoga poses to release muscle tension.
Hot bath. Relieve tension with a hot bath (add lavender essential oil and bath salts), but give your body time to cool off and get to a sleepier temperature.
Read. Read a good story or non-fiction – save murder mysteries and adventure novels for daytime.
Journal-writing. Journaling lowers stress by clarifying thoughts and feelings, tidying up the mind. It’s like putting your thoughts away on shelves and in drawers, rather than having them in front of you on your desk.
Falling Asleep – And Getting Back To Sleep
Start with slow, easy diaphragmatic breathing (see post for a review) – or do a relaxation exercise such as progressive muscle relaxation (get instructions and a free MP3). Every time you notice your mind wandering, gently return it to the breath, so your brain learns that night is not thinking time. For most of us, this isn’t easy, so be prepared that this is a process.
Ignore the clock. One reason to cover the clock is to eliminate bright light. The other reason: it prevents you from counting the minutes that you’re not sleeping. Rather, focus (and refocus) on your breathing or relaxation exercise.
If you’re still awake after about 15 minutes (post-relaxation exercise), get up. The same is true when you awaken during the night. If you stay in bed, you become frustrated and anxious and associate that – instead of sleep – with the bed. No screens, bright lights, or talking. Do calm or boring things only – read work reports or junk mail.
After 10-15 minutes, return to bed and start deep breathing or a relaxation exercise again. Redirect your wandering mind back to the breath.
If you’re not back to sleep in 15 minutes, get out of bed again. Repeat this process as many times as necessary. Yes, it’s torturous to keep hauling your exhausted self out of bed, but it’s important to make that association strong. Most people adapt fairly quickly and are able to get back to sleep without having to get out of bed after a few nights.
Try It for Yourself
If counting sheep isn’t working, give sleep hygiene a try.
For minor sleep problems, try a few of these tips and see if they make a difference. For major problems or full-blown insomnia, commit to doing all of these for at least a week. If your sleep doesn’t improve, see a doctor.
What sleep tactics work the best for you? How does your sleep – or lack thereof – affect your functioning? If you’ve tried any of these techniques, please share your experience – all in the comments section below.
If you liked this article and/or know someone who’d benefit from it, please share it. To receive post via email, sign up below. Thanks!