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Sleep and stress

If one thing is guaranteed to get in the way of quality sleep, it’s stress. Plenty of challenging situations can keep us awake at night — a big project approaching a deadline, a difficult conversation with a loved one or friend, a mounting to-do list, or genuine worry about something that has happened or might happen.

DISCLAIMER: General meditation practice and apps like Headspace are not a replacement for or a form of therapy, nor are they intended to cure, treat, or diagnose medical conditions, such as sleep disorders. Meditation can, however, be a component of an overall treatment plan when monitored by a healthcare professional.

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Whatever the reason for feeling stressed, the mind will race with thoughts as soon as the preoccupations and distractions of the day have fallen away — just as your head hits the pillow. It’s common, because it’s what the human mind does at bedtime.

What we then tend to do in this situation is put pressure on ourselves to stop thinking, but our frustration only multiplies the mental chatter. Before we know it, we’re locked in a cycle of rumination that fuels our trouble falling asleep. People who respond to stress or conflict by internalizing emotions tend to struggle with this the most: too anxious to unwind, too stressed to sleep, even fearing sleeplessness before going to bed.

But, of course, there’s hope — you can learn how to relax, manage the stress, and sleep better, helping you to replace tossing and turning into nights of quality rest.

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How does stress affect sleep?

It makes sense that less stress equates to better sleep, right? That’s what an APA survey found, anyway: People who report lower stress levels also report sleeping more hours each night (an average of 7.1 hours compared to 6.2).

That means that stress is robbing you of an hour’s sleep … at the very least. Why? Because the body is amped up when stress kicks in, and responds to stress the same way it responds to an outside threat: it releases cortisol, pumps adrenaline, and primes your body for a fight-or-flight response. Research shows that stressed out people are more likely to experience decreases in slow wave sleep, REM sleep, and sleep efficiency.

When stress is experienced on an everyday basis, it can become chronic stress. Your body doesn’t have a chance to relax and instead stays in a constant state of physiological arousal. That’s what causes sleep issues, fatigue, headaches, nausea, irritability, and a slew of other issues. So, first, it’s important to be aware of what’s happening; then, to address the causes.

How can I stop stressing about sleep?

When you’re too stressed to sleep, you might reach for a sleep aid for short-term relief. Helpful as they may be for that night, they might be masking the underlying issues that are likely contributing to your sleeplessness. Once we understand that the thinking mind is, more often than not, fueling the stress, we can then take steps to address the stress directly.

Here are 5 mindful ways to take the stress out of sleep:

1. Relax. Calming your mind and body doesn’t have to be complicated. Deep breathing exercises, spending time in nature, journaling, and meditation are all things that can help counter your body’s stress response. In fact, one study found that 10 days of using the Headspace app resulted in a 14% decrease in stress. Here are some Headspace articles with free meditations, technique breakdowns, or videos to bookmark (and visit on your device at least an hour before bed):

2. Talk about it. Emotional support can help reduce stressful situations. So call a friend or a loved one, or even ask a trusted coworker to lend a sympathetic ear. If you feel you’re in need of help at a deeper level, consult a medical health professional or a therapist (we’ve compiled a list of global mental health resources as a place to start). Often, talking things through can make a world of difference.

3. Release energy. Movement or any form of physical exercise allows you to release tension and calm down. A 2013 study found that a regular exercise routine over the course of a few weeks or months can help contribute to improved sleep. After all, it’s the quality of sleep that matters — even more than quantity. To avoid stimulating your body too close to bedtime, aim to exercise at least 3 hours before you plan to sleep.

4. Invest in sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene can make or break the quality of sleep you get each night. These are habits that are science-backed, and best when followed both day and night. Read up on 11 tips for better sleep hygiene to create the conditions for a healthier sleep.

5. Get out of bed. If you’re in bed feeling wound up and wondering how to fall back asleep: get up. Try a calming meditation, read a book, or fold some laundry. These tasks will help to settle the mind instead of being focused on the frustration of not sleeping. Whatever you do — don’t use your phone. Then, return to bed when you feel tired and try again.

Stress doesn’t have to follow you into the bedroom. And if you can remember that sleep is a natural thing, and your body does know how to do it when the conditions are right, then nighttime doesn’t have to become a source of frustration. Give the mind the time and space it needs to unwind properly — during the day and at night — and you will naturally drift off.

*available only to Headspace Plus subscribers

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