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Most of us have been there before.
A stressful day at work, an argument with a partner, or an event during the day can leave your head spinning. Learning how to sleep when stressed and anxious is important for a variety of reasons.
It doesn’t take long before sleep quality drops and you start to develop a sleep problem. This stops you from getting a good night's rest because you’re too stressed to sleep.
With anxiety driving your mind into overdrive, it can be hard to stop ruminating and relax at the end of the day. Your mind loops around the same track, keeps going over the same conversation, or worries the same unanswerable questions. Often, sleep becomes unattainable.
So what comes first, lack of sleep or anxiety?
It’s not so clear cut, one might bring about the other.
Let’s break down both to gain some more insight into how these two issues are related.
Stress and sleep
What happens to our brains when we get anxious?
Our amygdala, a part of the limbic system in the brain, controls our fight, flight, or freeze response. When we are anxious, this is the part of the brain that is first activated.
Once the initial stress response diminishes, we can then get stuck repeatedly thinking about whatever the stressor was.
In the case of chronic stress, our brains and bodies remain in a heightened state of arousal. This is an automatic stress management function and leads to multiple issues.
For example, in the body, constant stress can manifest as tense muscles, gastrointestinal issues, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, fatigue, teeth grinding or clenching as well as a plethora of other symptoms both seen and unseen.
Sleep disturbances are also often a key symptom that the health community uses to diagnose an anxiety disorder or sleep apnea.
Let’s say your brain is stressed and fixated on something. Or, the demands of your life or career leave you constantly worried. There is a higher probability that you are not sleeping as well as you could be. This results in sleep deprivation.
When we sleep, our bodies are able to heal and process events that happen during the day. When we are anxious, our brains have a harder time turning off and allowing sleep to take over, thus decreasing our body's ability to heal itself.
Sometimes, even when we do find sleep, studies have shown that REM sleep (rapid eye movement), a key phase of our sleep cycle, can be disrupted due to a high level of stress.
This can include nightmares for some that cause a further sleep problem.
Sometimes we can become so worried about not being able to get enough sleep that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We add sleep anxiety to our already anxious state.
Our anxiety grows as we anticipate a sleep disturbance, depriving us of the very thing we are worried about not getting enough of — sleep.
It is probably challenging at best to separate the two from one another.
Let’s talk about the things you can do throughout the day and leading up to bedtime to increase the likelihood that stress will not impact your sleep.
How to relieve stress and anxiety and improve sleep
Preparing yourself for a good night’s rest protected from stress and anxiety begins long before you hit your pillow. Let’s look at tips you can follow during the day that will help you rest easier and sleep better at night.
During the day
Here are six tips you can use during the day to help you learn how to sleep when stressed:
1. Focus on what is within your control
Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience. There will inevitably be times in our lives that our anxiety symptoms peak. Identifying tools to refocus your energy and gain more control over your habits can help you cope with symptoms as they arise.
For example, aim to understand the difference between a physical symptom (such as uncomfortableness) and mental factors such as social anxiety. Both can contribute to sleeping problems.
2. Eat healthily
What we eat is something we can control. When we eat things that are unhealthy, our bodies have a response to them. If we eat junk food regularly, our bodies increase inflammation and struggle more to manage anxiety.
However, when we aim to eat a healthy diet full of fresh foods, the opposite happens, and our bodies and minds are given the tools to thrive. This minimizes sleep loss.
One way to help your sleep and anxiety levels is to exercise. When we do so, our bodies release feel-good chemicals that help us better manage stress and sleep.
Physical activity can also be a great way to reduce negative thoughts and acute stress in a healthy way.
Timing is everything, though, as you want to avoid exercising close to bedtime as it can act as a stimulant. Instead, aim to get exercise earlier in the day whenever possible.
4. Reframe your thoughts
Automatic anxious thoughts, also called cognitive distortions, are one way anxiety shows up for many of us. Some common ones are catastrophizing, filtering, all-or-nothing thinking, "should" statements, and mindreading.
For example, perhaps you got feedback from 20 colleagues, and out of those, one of them was negative.
If you were filtering, also known as disqualifying the positive, you might focus on that one negative piece of feedback rather than seeing it in the context of the whole.
To overcome any automatic thought, there is an easy-to-remember three-step process.
- First, name it. “I am disqualifying the positive feedback I am receiving.”
- Second, check your evidence. In the example of 20 colleagues mentioned above, there were 19 positive feedback statements and one negative. The negative feedback might be something to potentially take into consideration. However, you do not have evidence that it is an accurate critique of your performance given the other feedback you received.
- Third, reframe it. If you can’t get to a positive, try to get to a neutral reframe. For example, “I will work on the area that was brought to my attention. But overall, I can see that my colleagues like and appreciate the work I do.”
5. Practice self-compassion
It is easy to feel overwhelmed from time to time about issues that arise in our lives.
We are often harder on ourselves than we would be on a friend, colleague, or family member. We have a strong inner critic. Next time you make a mistake or feel like you are somehow out of step with your values, try to treat yourself as you might a friend.
Would you be critical, judgmental, or mean to a friend who came looking for support? Chances are, you would be compassionate and understanding. Try to do the same for yourself and speak to yourself in a kind and supportive manner.
6. Develop a mantra
Find a phrase you can say to yourself that reminds you to keep things in perspective. When developing a mantra, keep it simple. No more than two or three sentences. It can be helpful to have the first part be something relaxing and the second to be forward-facing.
For example: “Take a breath. It will all be okay.” Or, “It is okay to relax. I will get through this as I have done in the past.” Play around with it until you find the right mantra that resonates for you.
Before going to bed
Here are five tips you can use before going to bed to improve your quality of sleep:
1. Develop a nightly routine
Consistently doing the same thing before bed can help your brain identify when it is time to start shutting down for the day. It cues the brain that you will be going to sleep shortly and allows it to start to unwind a bit.
Keeping this routine as consistent as possible is helpful, so the brain recognizes when you do it.
For example, you may wash your face, brush your teeth, and then read a book. Or some like to have a cup of tea or stretch before lying down. There is no right or wrong routine as long as it is something you find soothing and begins at least 30 minutes prior to you lying down for the night.
2. Make lists
If you are the type of person who has a hard time shutting down your mind, try making lists for the next day as you get ready for bed. Are there agenda items for tomorrow that you want to make sure you do not miss? Write them down.
When we do this, we are training our brain that it does not need to hold onto that information and potentially keep us up thinking about it. It relaxes a bit knowing that it is captured somewhere that you can read the following day.
3. Turn off devices
In this modern age, this can be a real challenge for many. Sadly, even with light filters turned on, our devices rob us of melatonin, a key hormone our bodies need to help us fall asleep.
Additionally, consider what type of thing you are doing on the device. This could be one last email or scrolling through social media accounts.
You can actually be activating your mind and causing it to become stimulated rather than cueing it to begin the relaxation process. This contributes to poor sleep hygiene and can actually increase nighttime anxiety.
4. Avoid stimulants
Ensure you are setting yourself up for deep sleep by avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco in the hours leading up to bed. Caffeine, even several hours before bedtime, can disrupt sleep and cause it to be allusive.
Additionally, while many think that alcohol will help sleep, it can actually do just the opposite. In fact, frequently consuming alcohol before bedtime will have you waking consistently in the middle of the night.
Try replacing your nightcap with a cup of chamomile tea instead, which can help reverse poor sleep quality.
5. Practice mindfulness
Practice some sort of mindfulness. A great one to do before bed is a body scan.
Start by finding a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down. Take a few deep breaths.
Beginning at your feet, slowly move your attention up your body. As you move from your feet to your legs, belly, shoulders, head, and neck, without judgment, simply notice if you are holding any tension in those areas.
Our goal here is to only make a note of it and accept it. If possible, in your mind’s eye, see if the tension you notice has a shape, color, temperature, or texture. Does it move or change as you notice it? Make sure you continue to breathe throughout this exercise.
By bringing awareness to the tension you are feeling, it can often limit its impact on you.
Using other relaxation techniques can also help you successfully practice mindfulness. This could be guided imagery, yoga poses, essential oils, or mindfulness meditation.
Guided meditation apps can be a great way to deal with a stressful situation and to relieve muscle tension.
Transform your room into a sanctuary for sleep
Here are five tips for transforming your bedroom to promote better sleep:
- Make your bed a relaxing haven: Make sure the bed feels firm enough (but not too firm) for you. Choose a pillow that helps you keep your spine aligned as you sleep. Investing in a weighted blanket can be helpful for those who suffer from anxiety. It also assists in managing stress reduction at night.
- Block out the light: Even light from a cable box, phone, or alarm clock can disrupt sleep. Limit any light sources that you can, install blackout shades or curtains, and consider covering or putting tape over indicator lights on electronics. Investing in a good sleep mask is another way to keep all of the annoying light sources at bay.
- Invest in a sound machine: Often, unusual sounds can wake us from sleep. Having some sort of sound machine or noise masking app can help keep a consistent sound. It drowns out other potentially disruptive noises.
- Turn clocks away from you: When we can’t sleep, we tend to focus on the clock. That isn't helpful. To avoid this, turn your clock away from your gaze before you lay down. If you use your phone for a clock, make sure to put it far enough away so you won't be tempted to pick it up to check the time.
- Find your Goldilocks temperature: Aim for a temperature that is not too hot nor too cold. Either extreme can disrupt sleep for many. Finding the right temperature will result in better sleep. Some people find that wearing socks to bed helps them fall asleep without layering on too many blankets that will cause overheating later.
Set yourself up for healthy sleep when stressed and anxious
If you try all of these steps and still struggle to sleep soundly, consider reaching out to your doctor or a sleep expert for support. Treatments for a generalized anxiety disorder or a sleep disorder can vary significantly.
One mental health treatment, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), is an evidence-based therapeutic technique that looks at the interplay of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can impact sleep.
By working with a trained therapist, even those who have struggled for years with their sleeping habits can find relief and a restorative night of slumber.
Your sleep and anxiety are interconnected. Finding ways to better manage one will ultimately help you find relief with the other.
For more help combatting stress and improving your overall well-being, consider working with a BetterUp coach.