A typical day can produce anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts, so it’s common for people to worry or encounter stressful situations. These thoughts and feelings can disrupt many physical and mental aspects, including your sleep.
Although this can pose a challenge, there are ways to reduce stress to ensure a better night’s sleep. As part of Stress Awareness Month in April, consider adding these behaviors as part of your nighttime routine.
The relationship between stress and sleep
Cortisol, a type of steroid hormone that helps control stress, and melatonin, a hormone that controls your circadian rhythm, play an important role in your nightly sleep cycle. Usually, cortisol and melatonin work in unison – melatonin peaks at night to help you fall asleep and cortisol increases in the early morning hours to help you wake up.
When stress perpetuates into the night, the brain releases cortisol to keep your body on high alert as part of the fight or flight reaction. Cortisol and melatonin are inversely related, meaning melatonin levels are low when cortisol levels are high and vice versa. In other words, the fight or flight response that stress creates leads to low levels of melatonin that make it difficult to sleep. Plus, increased cortisol levels make it harder to stay asleep and lower the ability to reach deep sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Research shows people with insomnia have higher levels of cortisol at night.
Your brain needs serotonin to make melatonin. People who experience chronic stress tend to have lower levels of serotonin, which means lower levels of melatonin and more problems sleeping.
The longer stress lingers during the day, the more it affects your sleep. For example, you may lay in bed at night stressed about work responsibilities the next day or about your financial situation. These distractions make it both harder to fall asleep and more difficult to stay asleep.
Stress that leads to sleep problems can result in more stress, creating a cyclical effect. When you’re tired, the body can become stressed and disrupt hormones that lead to more sleep problems.
In addition to a direct relationship between stress and sleep, stress can also lead to other bodily changes that make it more difficult to sleep.
Stress can often produce tense muscles that make it harder to relax when it’s time for bed. Increased heart rate is also an effect of stress, which can make it harder to sleep – normally, your heart rate is lower when sleeping.
The brain is also smart enough to associate negative interactions, meaning it can become increasingly harder and harder to get in bed each night because your brain will recognize the difficult experiences.
Bedtime routine for adults
As if stressful situations weren’t enough during the day, many Americans don’t have any way to reduce the tension they feel before going to sleep. Establishing a nighttime routine can help you feel less stressed and make it easier to sleep.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol: Don’t drink coffee, tea or caffeinated beverages in the afternoon or early evening to avoid being too charged up at night to the point where it affects your sleep. The same goes for alcohol. While alcohol is a sedative and may make you fall asleep, it can disrupt your sleep cycle in the middle of the night when your liver metabolizes the alcohol.
Controlled breathing: The simple act of breathing can do wonders for controlling stress and anxiety. Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most common types of controlled breathing and involves taking deep breaths through your nose and holding for six seconds followed by exhaling for six seconds.
Epsom salt bath: A warm bath, in general, can help provide a sense of calmness. But adding Epsom salt, also known as magnesium sulfate, can help reduce stress and help you relax.
Keep a journal: Writing down your thoughts and feelings before bed is one way to clear your mind. It can also serve as an avenue to organize and set goals for the upcoming days and weeks which, in turn, can reduce stress.
Meditation: Meditating before bed helps detach from your thoughts and relax your mind. There are many smartphone apps dedicated to breathing exercises and meditation. Be sure to create a distraction-free environment when meditating. Dim the lights, turn the TV off and position yourself in a comfortable spot – either sitting up or lying down.
Progressive muscle relaxation: Tense muscles can make it uncomfortable to sleep, and this exercise allows you to relax parts of your body that are stiff and rigid. To perform this technique, take a deep breath and focus on tightening or squeezing sections of your body for 10 seconds at a time. Now exhale and relax your muscles.
Reduce screen time: Smartphones, tablets and laptops have become an extension of our hands, finding their way into the bedroom by habit. Electronic devices emit blue light, a type of color that can make you more alert and disrupt sleep cycles. Limiting screen time at night can prevent poor sleep habits.
Schedule worry time: If you’ve never heard of worry time, it’s a component of cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses on allocating 15 minutes a day in which you’re allowed to worry. This allows you to clear your mind before bed.
Visualization: Visualizing images or specific scenery can be a part of either meditation or breathing exercises. Close your eyes and take yourself to a peaceful location, such as a beach or a mountain range. Allow your brain to explore specific objects, colors and sounds.
Yoga: Yoga is both beneficial to the body and mind, allowing your body to heal and relax through gentle movements and poses while also allowing your brain to decompress. Not all yoga is beneficial before you sleep, though, as some types can increase your heart rate. Focus on hatha yoga and nidra yoga, which both focus on breathing, relaxation and body position.
For some people, changes to nighttime routines simply aren’t enough and more intervention may be needed to rule out a sleep disorder. Ask your doctor if a sleep study is right for you. You can also contact the INTEGRIS Health Sleep Disorders Center of Oklahoma for more information. Our team of technologists work together to monitor your sleep, including your brain activity, heart rate, oxygen level and breathing patterns to get an accurate picture of how you sleep.