stress affecting your sleep

Sleep is often a neglected side of wellness but it’s as important a pillar of health as diet and exercise. Life and work can be stressful and the uncertainty of the past year has seen us more anxious and stressed than ever before, with the result that we aren't sleeping much.

What is stress?
Stress comes about when you experience a perceived threat (psychological, or physical real or imagined), which in turn triggers your stress response hormone, which leads to physical changes and the release of glucocorticoids such as cortisol, by the endocrine system. These stress hormones create the flight or flight response that, for cavemen, meant running away from real danger. A ‘healthy’ stress response is when your cortisol (stress hormone) spikes but it's followed by a decrease in stress levels once the stressful event is over.

Sleep and stress
With modern-day living (work, traffic jams, the constant work-life juggle plus multiple other factors), a lot of us are under constant stress. Prolonged stress means that our endocrine system response is under constant hyperactivity by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) access in the central nervous system. This affects our sleep-wake cycle and reduces REM sleep which leads to a bad night’s sleep which in turn leads to a bad mood, impaired memory, an increase in caffeine intake to make us feel more alert (but which triggers more cortisol release) and often to more stress as part of this vicious cycle. Chronic or prolonged stress is bad for your health, so if this is you, please seek help from a professional.

3 Ways to alleviate stress and improve wellness and sleep

Studies show the benefits of meditation for clearing your mind and reducing stress. It can be as simple as 5-10 minutes every evening by listening to a guided meditation on an app such as Insight Timer (but there are lots of apps or meditations on YouTube).

Here is a simple meditation for you to try:
Begin in a comfortable position either lying down on the floor or in a chair. Close your eyes and bring your attention to the here and now, all the while focusing on your breath. Inhale deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth. As thoughts enter your mind, allow them to pass through and each time this happens, return your focus to your breathing. Continue for 5 minutes.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation. Search for a ‘mindful body scan’ on YouTube or the Insight Timer app. Or follow these steps for a mindful body scan:

Lie in a comfortable position, rest your head on a cushion or cover yourself with a blanket. Close your eyes and focus your awareness on your breathing.  

Starting at your toes, notice the sensations that you are feeling – pain, pressure, tingling, tightness. As your mind wanders, notice it happening and then slowly return focus to your body. Continue moving your attention up your body, explore the sensations up to your head and notice the points where you contact the floor. When you have finished scanning your entire body, close your eyes and carry the increased awareness with you through to bedtime.

A 'brain dump' before bedtime
Journaling or simply doing a brain dump of your thoughts before bedtime- empty your racing thoughts of your head, make tomorrow’s to-do list, write it all down so it’s not swirling around your head. This is a proven way to help you sleep. Journaling has become popular in recent years with studies showing that analogue (writing it down on paper) has more benefits than digital and that it reduces anxiety.

Save these to have at hand for the next time you're feeling stressed.

June 22, 2021 — Anne Marie Boyhan