How To Actually Get Some Sleep While Stressed


A sleep expert shares useful tips

April is National Stress Awareness Month — and beyond that, many of us are experiencing heightened stress during this uncertain time. As lots of people can attest: It can be especially hard to get some shut eye during periods of stress. But, of course, sleep is very important to boosting one’s immune system.

So, to help us get some quality sleep, our friends at Sleep Number connected us with a sleep expert. Dr. Eve Van Cauter weighed in on how to manage stress, what to do if you’re waking up in the middle of the night, and how to establish a nighttime routine.

Wake-Up Call: It’s National Stress Awareness Month, and we’d love to learn more about the correlation between sleep and stress. Can you tell us how stress can impact a person’s sleep?

In all mammals, activation of the stress system, often called the “fight or flight response,” is a normal and healthy reaction to a threat, real or perceived. When faced with an acute stressor, our body releases hormones that mobilize energy and enhance arousal to facilitate responding to the threat. Thus, stress generally inhibits sleep.

Conversely, voluntary sleep curtailment, a behavior that is almost uniquely human, tends to activate the stress system and generally increases the levels of stress hormones even in the absence of an identifiable threat.

Stress may delay the onset of sleep, promote awakenings after sleep onset or make sleep shallow and less restorative. A vicious cycle may be established where exposure to stress may impair sleep and then poor sleep quality or reduced sleep duration will in turn amplify or extend the stress response.

Generally speaking, why is sleep so important? And then more specific to now, what role does sleep play in keeping us healthy?

Sleep affects every process in the brain and in the rest of the body. Sleep should be considered as a pillar of health and well-being, on par with good nutrition and physical exercise.

Multiple well-documented studies have shown that insufficient sleep and poor sleep quality increase the risk and the severity of a wide range of conditions, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Most relevant to the current pandemic, there is strong scientific evidence indicating that insufficient sleep and poor sleep quality have an adverse effect on the immune system and may make you more susceptible to viral infection. Thus, maintaining good sleep habits will promote immune resistance to the coronavirus.

We’re living in uncertain times — and that’s likely contributing to feelings of stress. Do you have any tips for managing stress right now?

Uncertainty and lack of control over a situation increase feelings of stress. This is what most of us are experiencing right now.

One way to manage stress is to try to maintain regularity and predictability in our daily life routines, including our sleep-wake cycle, the timing of our meals, and our work, social and leisure activities. To have a plan for the day and try to stick to it makes for a less stressful and more rewarding day.

Helping others deal with the current situation may also elicit positive emotions that help manage the stress. Exercise will help as well as it generally enhances mood. Many people find that reducing clutter and “tidying the nest” reduces anxiety. Last but not least, avoid watching the news in the evening and engage instead in relaxing activities to promote a good night of sleep!

If someone is going through a period of stress and experiencing interrupted sleep, what tips could they use to get back to a more regular sleep schedule?

Try to go to bed and get out of bed at the same time every day to keep your bodily rhythms in synchrony. Sleep in a very dark room and avoid screen time for a couple of hours before lights off. Make sure you are exposed to daylight during part of the day, preferably in the morning. Try to exercise regularly. Early in the evening, make a realistic “to do” list for the following day. That is one way to put your worries to sleep at the same time as yourself.

If you wake up in the middle of the night and start tossing and turning, get out of bed. Remind yourself that it is fairly normal to experience nocturnal awakenings during a period of stress. Engage in some quiet activity, like reading or listening to soothing audio content. When you feel sleepy again, go back to bed. It is easier to re-initiate sleep after a full awakening than after tossing and turning in bed in the dark.

Also, is it true that there’s a link between stress — and vivid dreams?

Nightmares are a common complaint of post-traumatic stress disorder. In this condition, they can recur frequently and are very distressing. However, trauma is an extreme form of stress. Less intense stress experiences are not systematically associated with vivid dreams, although they can occur.

What are some things people should not do at night before bedtime? And beyond that — what’s the ideal bedtime routine?

Day-to-day regularity of bedtime and wake up time is most important. Alcohol, stimulants such as caffeinated beverages and heavy dinner meals must be avoided. Exposure to light, particularly blue light, as emitted by smartphones, tablets and televisions, should be limited. That is because blue light is the type of light that tells our biological clock that it is daytime and therefore we want to avoid blue light exposure when we want to go to sleep. Ideal sleeping conditions also include a dark, quiet room at a cool temperature (60–65 F) and a comfortable sleeping surface.

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