Sometimes falling asleep can be more difficult than we think it should be. Perhaps you find yourself tossing and turning in bed, unable to shut off your thoughts. Even when you seemingly fall asleep, anxiety dreams take over, such as missing an assignment or appointment at work or school. Eventually you wake up even more exhausted than before you went to bed.
One of the reasons we lay awake at night is stress. We all live stressful lives. The demands of work, family, school, service, and other factors can put significant pressure on us. We run from one thing to the next, leaving unfinished tasks and loose ends. Our schedules combined with expectations and deadlines just feed into our stress, and unless managed properly, it can have a profound effect on our health, including the quality of sleep we get.
Stress is neither all good or bad. According to a recent Stanford University study, stress can be harmful if it’s chronic and ongoing. Stress can also be beneficial, such as a short-term fight-or-flight scenario. Dr. Firdaus Bhabhar, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of research at the Stanford Center on Stress and Health, states that most people are able to cope with small amounts of stress with no noticeable side effects.
“Most reasonably healthy people can deal with repeated short-term stressors as long as there are sufficiently long periods when stress-related biological factors are at very low levels, such as when the person is at rest.”
However, Bhabhar recognizes that everyone is different. “Some individuals can continue to function normally or even well under significant amounts of chronic stress, while others are less able.”
No matter what stress you’re dealing with, or how capable you are of dealing with stress, inevitably there will be times in our lives in which we need to examine those stressors and determine whether or not we are dealing with that stress appropriately.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the first step in diagnosing the cause of your stress-related sleep issue is identify the source. What was the reason you stopped sleeping well? Keeping a sleep diary can help recognize potential sleep disorders and help resolve them before it becomes a major problem.
The National Sleep Foundation describes a sleep diary as a record of a person’s sleep patterns and habits. Keeping a sleep diary is incredibly easy. Simply keep a pen and notebook by your bed and record the following:
- Time you went to bed
- Time it took to fall asleep – a ballpark estimate is fine
- Time you got up in the morning
- Number of times you wore during the night
- Reasons for getting up
- How refreshing was your sleep – this can be a description or a rating
- If your sleep was disturbed (breathing troubles, leg movements, insomnia), describe why
- Number of caffeinated beverages consumed that day
- Number of alcoholic beverages consumed that day
- Time spent exercising
- Activities performed within an hour of bed
As you keep a sleep diary, you may notice other behaviors besides stress that may be affecting your sleep. Plus, when you see a sleep specialist for help with your sleep issues, the sleep diary will help tremendously in obtaining a quick and accurate diagnosis.
What to Do
Now that you’ve identified the reasons you’re not sleeping well, along with other stressors in your life, the next step is to relieve stress. Each person will have their own favorite method to relieve stress, but a more rigorous approach may provide added benefits that you haven’t experienced yet. This is where your sleep diary plays an important part.
Start with the time you went to bed. Are you getting enough sleep? Try for at least 7 hours, but any additional sleep will help your body rest, which will help relieve stress.
Based on your sleep diary, what time are you getting up in the morning? In order to feel more rested, wake up each day at the same time. This will help with your body’s biological rhythms to get into a pattern that will help you feel more rested.
Caffeine and Alcohol
Caffeine and alcohol are commonly used, and in some cases abused, to help relieve stress. However, caffeine and alcohol are having the opposite affect and hurting your sleep.
Caffeine may be the most popular drug in the world. It’s a stimulant and responsible for increasing alertness, but also can cause other issues, such as anxiety, irritability, excessive urination, and sleep disturbances. If you’re getting up at night to go to the bathroom, reduce your caffeine intake and see if that helps.
Alcohol may be caffeine’s opposite. Alcohol is a depressant. It slows down vital functions, which seemingly would suggest that it helps with sleep. WebMD analyzed 27 studies to show that alcohol does not improve sleep quality. Researcher Irshaad Ebrahim, medical director at The London Sleep Centre, says, “Alcohol may seem to be helping you to sleep, as It helps induce sleep, but overall it is more disruptive to sleep, particularly in the second half of the night.”
Other Stress Relievers
Other common ways to reduce stress is to seek social support, practicing thought management, exercising, breathing exercises, eating better, maximizing your sleep environment, and creating a bedtime routine. There are also habits to avoid before sleep, such as eating too close to bedtime and watching TV before going to sleep.
Most often if you are struggling with sleep issues, and in spite of your best efforts to self-diagnose and treat your sleep issues, you simply need help from qualified sleep specialists trained to help improve your sleep. Please visit your local sleep clinic, and if you live in Alaska, click on the link below to connect with a professional sleep specialist.