We made it! Here is Linda’s final article on stress and sleep. She explores some strategies to help you regulate your sleep patterns and ultimately reduce your stress levels by lowering the cortisol in your system. As always, if you have any questions or comments for Linda or I, please feel free to comment below!
“I’m not a very good sleeper. But you know what? I’m willing to put in a few extra hours every day to get better. That’s just the kind of hard worker I am.” – Jarod Kintz
In our 3 part series so far we have covered a great deal of information about sleep; what happens during sleep, the healthy sleep cycle, why we need sleep, and how sleep interacts with stress.
Because stress and sleep can interact to keep you trapped in the stress cycle, the first thing you need to do when you are stressed is work on improving your sleep to down-regulate your stress response.
Today I have provided you with a list of strategies for improving your sleep.
How can you improve sleep?
Good ‘sleep hygiene’ is really about making sure that you do as much as you can to improve your chances at achieving quality sleep by developing healthy sleep habits.
Some of the strategies you might like to try include:
- Routine, routine, routine: going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time every morning helps to regulate your biological clock. Most people need roughly 7 – 10 hours of sleep each night. Any less than 6.5 hours and your body starts to produce more cortisol!
- Bright lights!: remember how we talked about your biological clock? Well it turns out that light is actually the most effective time-cue for your biological clock. To help your sleep-wake cycle stay regular make sure that you get plenty of natural light during the day, exposing yourself briefly to sunlight from around 9am and reducing your exposure to unnatural lighting in the evening. This means not watching television, computer, i-pad or mobile phone screens for at least two hours prior to going to bed.
- Spend less time at the local coffee house: we previously explored a special chemical made by your brain to induce sleepiness, called adenosine. Caffeine and nicotine disrupt the sleep-wake cycle by blocking adenosine. Stimulants will also reduce stage 3 and 4 sleep and cause you to cycle more frequently between the stages of sleep. Try to eliminate using any stimulants after around noon.
- Party season is over: Alcohol is also a no-no if you are having trouble sleeping. While it may make you drowsy initially it also inhibits stage 3 and 4 sleep as well as causing you to wake throughout the night and move frequently between the sleep stages.
- Power up your nap time: napping throughout the day will only confuse your biological clock so it is best to avoid hour long naps when you are struggling with sleep. Having said that, a brief ‘power nap’ of no more than 20 minutes prior to 3pm may help you to get through the day until bed-time. Initially you may struggle to wake before 20 minutes however you can train your body by using an alarm clock to wake you after 20 minutes of napping.
- Worship bedtime: by creating rituals you can help your body recognize when it is time to go to sleep. You may choose to do things like read a book prior to sleep, drink a caffeine-free cup of tea, take a warm bath, or practice breathing exercises. Check out the post on ‘Stress and the Role of Breathing’ to learn how to use diaphragm breathing.
- Midnight munchies: grab a snack before heading off to bed. Yes you read right! If you are waking in the early hours of the morning try having a healthy snack such as a banana, half a slice of whole grain bread with peanut butter, a slice of cheese on a whole-grain cracker. Remember that stress messes with your body’s ability to store and use energy. Many people wake at 2am because their body mistakenly believes that they need an energy hit.
- Trip into tryptophan: any foods that contain tryptophan are helpful in encouraging sleep. Melatonin is made from serotonin which is made from tryptophan. Melatonin is one of the hormones that help to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Tryptophan rich foods include poultry, organ meat, sea food, cheese, milk, yoghurt, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, legumes, and bananas.
- Who turned out the lights: make sure that your bedroom is completely dark, as this sends a signal to your biological clock that it is time to sleep. This means no illuminated alarm clocks or pesky LED lights.
- Chuck the clocks: most of the people I meet describe how when they are unable to sleep they find themselves constantly glancing at the clock and then worrying even more about how much sleep they are not getting, and how soon they will have to be climbing back out of bed. Get rid of your clock. If you need to have an alarm find something that is not illuminated and that you won’t be able to see easily. As you are lying in your bed, rather than focusing on not being able to sleep and increasing your worry, remind yourself that any rest is good for your body. You may even find it helpful to practice a progressive muscle relaxation or a mindfulness activity, or even diaphragm breathing to engage the relaxation response.
- Get up, get out there, and get active: activity during the day can also help to regulate your biological clock and keep your circadian rhythms on track. Be aware of extensive cardiovascular exercise if you are stressed – this means no more than 20 minutes in any one session and no more than twice a week. Your body will benefit more from gentle walks, interval training, strength training or yoga and tai chi if you are experiencing high levels of stress.
- Become a socialite: believe it or not social interaction actually regulates your biological clock! Strange but true. For best results you need to engage in social activity throughout the day. If you have any group functions these are best done during the day and then as evening approaches you will benefit from reducing social contact to smaller numbers towards the evening.
- Stress busting: of course wherever possible it is important to work on reducing or eliminating your stress. This may involve talking to a professional such as a counsellor or psychologist to work out how to reduce worry, engaging in active problem solving, and using mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.
- Bin the Benzo’s: sleeping tablets will only increase your sleep problems in the long run and will more than likely trigger anxiety throughout the day. These medications are also addictive, creating an extra problem on top of the stress you are already experiencing. If you feel as though you are so exhausted that you need to take something try natural alternatives first. Always consult your medical practitioner.
- Nightmares: if you have experienced trauma you may be worried about having nightmares when you go to sleep. There are some steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of bad dreams and to reorient yourself when you do have nightmares. Imagining the bad dream prior to sleep sounds counterintuitive, however it appears that if you work on imagining a different, more pleasant ending to the dream you can change your dreams. Rehearse the different ending many times before going to sleep. If you do wake from a bad dream, reorient yourself to the present by touching a familiar object, moving your body, getting up and looking out of the window to remind yourself where you are, remind yourself that you are home and that you are safe, visualize your surroundings: your bedroom, your home, the street outside your room, your neighborhood.
This article provides some information on the HPA axis, cortisol and sleep along with some healthy alternatives to reduce cortisol production and improve sleep: http://naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2010-06/role-cortisol-sleep.
Linda is an AHPRA registered psychologist and relationship counsellor with offices located on the Gold Coast. She has worked in mental health since 1994. Since that time, following a long and often trying journey, particularly given that she had not completed secondary school, she achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, a Diploma of Counselling, a Graduate Diploma of Adult Education and a Post Graduate Diploma of Psychology. Linda now enjoys specializing in helping couples to learn how to value their best asset, enabling people suffering from dementia to move forward in their lives, and supporting people who have experienced work-place injury in their recovery. She also has a passion for assisting people to heal from stress, anxiety and depression.
Linda values openness, authenticity, and acceptance in her work as a psychologist. She is a big believer in the power of the mind and recognizes that in many instances it is the activity within our minds that contributes to our psychological distress. Linda views the brain as an amazingly powerful organ: she is passionate about understanding how the brain functions and what each of us can do to maximize the brains potential.
You can find out more about Linda at www.eastqldcounselling.com.au.