As the summer months end and September begins, we return to hectic school and work schedules. From getting the children back to school to battling the morning commute, we must adjust to new and more demanding routines. If not managed effectively, our stress levels can increase and can negatively impact our overall health, particularly our sleep quality.
In a recent sleep study, 10 000 Canadians between the ages of 18-74 were asked about their sleep quality. It was found that 3 out of 4 Canadians are not getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep. Even more alarming, 1 in 4 are getting 5 hours or less. The reported factor that significantly impacted their sleep was stress. Canadians reported experiencing ‘quite a bit’ or ‘extremely high’ daily stress resulting in significant sleep disturbances.
When we are stressed, our body’s physiological and psychological arousal increases resulting in an inability for our mind and body to relax leading to difficulties falling or staying asleep. Moreover, the time you spend in deep sleep, the stage of sleep associated with body restoration, is limited. This only adds to our levels of irritability the following day.
How can we know if our sleep disturbances are linked to stress?
- Are you experiencing a busy mind, that won’t turn off? Our brain is constantly creating thoughts and is vigilant to recognize threats in our environment that may harm us. When we are stressed these thoughts often grow exponentially and play in a continuous loop resulting in us going over stressors, frustrations and worries from a variety of angles. This interferes with our ability to move into the relaxed state required for a sound sleep.
- Is your body tense and your heart racing? When we experience a stressor, our stress response triggers physical changes including increased heart rate, rapid breathing and a release of chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. Our stress response prepares us to either fight or flee the stressor accordingly. This is an effective mechanism during the day, when we can potentially deal with the stressor, however, at night when we are attempting to settle down to sleep, it no longer becomes helpful. In addition, for some stressors such as traffic jams, bills or strained relationships, it is more difficult and often impossible to fight or flee the situation. This can lead
to ongoing tension in the body or aroused physical states. These tensions can significantly impact our sleep. Furthermore, many individuals report experiencing headaches and pain sensitivity the following day due to the lack of sleep.
How do we overcome these disturbances and get the snooze we deserve?
Calm your racing mind. Our mind is often racing because we are trying to find solutions for our past or predict outcomes for the future. These are two states that we have little to no control over. Therefore, these unhelpful thoughts plague our mind and negatively impact our sleep. One way to overcome these thought patterns is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness practices encourage us to take charge of our busy mind by focusing on the present, building awareness of thought patterns and letting go of unhelpful thoughts without judgement. For example, imagine each thought as a passing cloud; free floating and ever changing. Your job is to notice the thoughts and watch them pass on by rather than trying to engage with them moment to moment. Other mindfulness exercises such as muscle relaxation and deep breathing can encourage your body to dial down and move into a restful state.
Have proper sleep hygiene and develop a sleep routine. Studies have shown that creating an environment suitable for sleep is imperative. This includes reducing caffeine intake prior to sleep, turning off bright lights, sleeping in a cooler temperature and reducing noise. In addition, it is important to develop a healthy sleep routine. As you begin to wind down at the end of the day, be sure to foster a routine that best suits you and encourages a state of calm.
Your routine can include:
- Light stretching to loosen any muscle tension
- Completing a list of accomplishments from the day and/or developing a to do
list for the upcoming day
- Listening to soft and relaxing music
- Discussing your day with a friend or family member
- Enjoying a warm caffeine free drink
- Taking a warm bath
- Keeping a gratitude journal or reciting daily affirmations
Once a routine has been established, you can consistently set yourself up for a good night’s slumber, night after night.
If you notice that your stress levels or poor sleep quality are significantly impacting your work, school, health, mood or relationships please contact a trained practitioner to support you to develop helpful strategies to improve your health.