When it comes to daily factors that can rob us of good sleep, pressure, stress and anxiety are right up there on the list.
How can stress affect sleep?
The stress response is a natural one. When we feel pressure or out of control, or even just a little frustrated at something or someone, adrenaline and cortisol flow through the body from the adrenal glands helping to mobilise sugar from the muscles into the bloodstream to be used for energy to fuel the stress or ‘fight or flight’ response.
There are two things to be wary of with the stress response:
1. In our modern environment, it’s much less appropriate to either fight our way out of a situation, or to flee the scene. It’s much more likely that we have to bite our tongue and internalise any frustration, so we are continually producing stress hormones without using them in any productive way. This can disrupt the daily chemical balance of our body.
2. Life is busy and change is constant so it’s likely that we’ll experience the stress response many times every single day. After a while we can begin to overlook low but constant levels of stress because we just ‘get used to it’. This isn’t necessarily a positive situation.
If you think that stress in any area of your life might be affecting your sleep, it can be helpful to keep some notes and record moments in the day when you feel your usually calm and focused approach has been disrupted. This will help build up a clear picture of what’s really going on.
Repeatedly producing these stress hormones through the day means they build up in our system. If this happens, we then try to process them and regain a physical balance later in the evening. Creating work for the body with this rebalancing process can prevent us from unwinding and falling asleep at night.
Many people lose sleep because they struggle to unwind in the evening and can’t switch off at night. This usually happens if you’ve had a busy day, up to and including the period right before bed. You may even still be busy when you get into bed – one of the down sides of smart phones and tablets is that they enable us to blur the line between daytime activities and nighttime sleep.
Rather than allowing the ‘busyness’ of every day to create a situation where stress hormones build and build, seek strategies to process and deal with your day as it unfolds.
The problem if you have days that are packed with activity that continues late into the night is that you’re compromising the natural wind-down time of the evening - the period when your mind makes sense of everything that’s happened since you woke up, and organises and interprets your day in order that you can relax into undisturbed sleep.
The only way to ensure your best night’s sleep is to plan for it. Two things really help here.
1. Establishing your bedtime and determining the rituals that will ensure you can fall asleep at this time – your pre-sleep routine
2. To get a great night’s sleep you need to think about laying the groundwork for this with your mind and body throughout the day. It can be challenging to run a busy daily routine and then expect to instantly unwind at night. If you can achieve moments of calm, relaxation and balance periodically throughout the day, you’ll find it much easier to achieve this state at night. One way to get better at switching off is to practice regularly. Mindfulness is a topic talked about a lot at the moment as great way to do this.
Mindfulness really just means engaging at a deeper level with whatever you are doing. It can mean focusing on an activity, and it can mean focusing on inactivity. Living more mindfully is an attempt at bringing quality to our everyday life by tuning out some of the distracting background noise that we’re all subject to and allowing us to enjoy the moment at hand.
You can be mindful doing anything in life, and you can be mindful doing nothing. The benefits of the technique come from both total focus and total distraction
Focusing on what you’re doing
This is a good habit to get into and it is quite simple. Rather than adopting the default position that many people have of feeling busy with one thing and pressured to be doing a variety of other tasks, put your full focus on what you’re doing at the present time. This can feel strange at first but if you can persuade yourself that you’ll get the job done more quickly, and probably produce a better result if you give it your full attention, you can develop this focused approach quite quickly.
How does this help me sleep?
Adopting a more mindful approach helps you feel more in control of your day and the more control we feel, the less likely we are to produce stress hormones that can compromise our night time sleep routine.
Focus on doing nothing
The ability to calm your thoughts and clear your mind can be a powerful asset in the quest for great sleep, but doing nothing can feel very odd. Try the following step-by-step process to become more used to slowing down.
Practice stilling your thoughts by sitting in a comfortable position for 30 seconds and doing nothing
Resist the temptation to grab your phone or check your email
Progressively extend 30 seconds of doing nothing to a minute.
Then practice staying still for two minutes and beyond
The idea is that you let thoughts run through your head, without judgment or need for action, until you become more used to spending time doing nothing
Try the technique a few times a day for a few days The more regularly you practice this, the easier it will become to be still for longer. You’ll find yourself less tempted to move and get distracted by whatever tasks pop into your head.
You may find it helpful to focus completely on your breathing to help you relax. You might want to count your breaths. It might also be useful to focus on some key words or a phrase to help you block out ‘interference’. Inwardly repeating the words ‘calm and relaxed’ while breathing deeply is a simple but effective technique to achieve stillness.
Music can help, as can spoken word guided relaxation scripts but it’s also a great asset to be able to take control of your mental space without external assistance. This way you know you’ll be capable of relaxation and sleep wherever you are and whenever you need the skill to help you.
For the best results with sleep at night, practice calming your mind during the day when the aim is to relax and clear your head rather than to sleep. Slowing things down might make you feel a little drowsy but when you get moving again you’ll feel energised. Actually achieving this feeling of drowsiness can be a good thing as it teaches you that finding this state is possible quite quickly which will increase your confidence in using the techniques to help you get to sleep at night.
Quick tips for mindful living
Stop what you’re doing.
Sometimes we get so busy that the day just flies by. Running your mind and body at top speed all day long can make it difficult to slow down at the end of the day so it’s a valuable skill to be able to change pace regularly. It’s a skill you need to practice though and you might need some help initially so get into the habit of setting your alarm to remind you to take a moment to stop and clear your head.
Alternatively, create some positive associations that remind you to take some time through the day. For example, you may take a small break as you get yourself some water or a cup of tea. You could plan a moment of quiet thought each time you press send on an email or change the physical space that you’re working in.
Slow your breathing
It often helps to count while breathing. Progressively slow your breathing and aim for 6 breaths a minute – inhale for the count of 5 and exhale for the count of 5.
Tense and relax around the body
You can do this sitting down or lying down. Once you’re in a relaxed state created by deep breathing, move your focus around your body so you can tense and then relax each area in turn, starting at the top and contracting muscles for 2- 5 seconds before relaxing them.
Start by squeezing and relaxing the muscles of your face
Hunch and relax your shoulders
Squeeze your shoulder blades together and then relax
Hunch your shoulders forwards and relax
Tense your biceps and release
Contract your triceps and release
Clench your fists, then unclench
Tighten and relax your stomach
Clench your bottom and relax
Tighten your thighs, front and back
Squeeze your calves
Flex and straighten your ankles
Breath and relax your whole body
Every breath should feel as though it fills your body and then you feel heavier in your seat or on the floor as you exhale without your body moving or compromising your position
Mindful travel to relaxing places
No matter where you are physically, you can always remove yourself mentally and find a space to relax and de-stress. Raid your memory banks to put together a library of locations that you can revisit for immediate calm.
Quick relaxation guide
To keep yourself calm and focused during the day, and aid great sleep at night, here are 5 top tips:
Take regular time outs to engage with what you’re doing and appreciate it
Take regular time outs to distract yourself from what you are doing and clear your head
Practice deep breathing regularly
Practice relaxing your body regularly
Have a selection of favourite places to visit in your head and take yourself there regularly