Reprinted from "Mind-Body Connection" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 10 (2), p. 21
Have you ever been so stressed out that you can’t fall asleep? Have you had problems sleeping that caused you stress? Sleep difficulties occur naturally in response to stress. Sleep difficulties can also cause stress. Minds and bodies can become aroused and difficult to calm down in both types of situations.
Stress is associated with emotional upset and body tension. Both increase arousal, which is a state of being awake and ready for action.
Arousal alerts and prepares the body to deal with danger. If you actually are in danger, you want to be awake and prepared to fight or run away. If you were a wild animal and you fell asleep when a predator was around, you wouldn’t survive very long. But you’re not a wild animal. Running away, hiding or fighting are probably not the best strategies for dealing with the types of stressors you face (e.g., financial, social, personal, occupational).
The way you view yourself and the world, or what your mind’s eye sees, can influence how your body reacts. If you see a large dog and hear it barking loudly and running toward you, you may perceive the threat level differently if you know the dog to be friendly than you would if it’s unknown to you. If it was your pet, you could interpret the dog’s barks as excitement.
Try thinking about stress as if it were a balance scale. On one side of the scale you have perceived demands. On the other side of the scale you have perceived resources. Imagine a situation where you have to pay a bill of $100. If you have $500 in your bank account, you can pay the bill. Your demand does not exceed your resources. But, if you only have $50 in your bank account, your demand outweighs your resources.
Whether we feel stressed, or not, has to do with our perception of our demands and resources. One individual might not mind dipping into a line of credit to pay a bill, whereas another person might feel like a failure for not having enough savings. The way you view a demand or problem, as well as how you appraise your resources and ability to cope with it, can have a big impact on how you will feel.
Envisioning stress as a balancing act between perceived demands and perceived resources allows you to view stress management as the process of:
reducing perceived demands, and
increasing perceived resources
Resources aren’t limited to money. Resources can be cognitive (e.g., healthy thinking styles), emotional (e.g., emotion regulation skills), behavioural (e.g., taking action to change things), social (e.g., having support), physical (e.g., strength and energy) and spiritual (e.g., having faith).
If you find your mind and body racing, ask yourself, “What are my stressors?” But don’t stop there. Ask yourself, “What are my strengths and resources? What can I do to solve or cope with my problems?” Sometimes people get stuck focusing on stressors without paying attention to the things they can do to deal with them. Or, they don’t see the ways they can view things differently to reduce the impact of the stressors on their emotions and body.
Good sleep is definitely on the “resource” side of the scale. Good sleep helps with psychological functioning, including improved emotional regulation and cognitive processes such as concentration, attention and memory. Sleeping well also benefits general physical health by restoring the body and physical energy, repairing injury and promoting growth. Social functioning can also be affected by sleep, as tired, cranky people aren’t usually fun to be around.
Sleep is influenced to a large degree by two main systems in your body: your body-clock system and your sleep-driver system.1 Your body-clock determines the best timing for sleep. It operates by sending alert signals to keep you awake. Your sleep-driver system balances time asleep and time awake. It operates by increasing the pressure to go to sleep with each accumulating waking hour. If everything is running smoothly, your sleep-promoting system will win out over your alertness-promoting system each night.
But if your stress level at bedtime is high, your alertness-promoting system can win out over sleep. Reducing stress by viewing demands as manageable can quieten the emotional and physiological arousal signals that get set off when you view demands as threatening or overwhelming. When your stress level at bedtime is low, you are more likely to fall asleep easily.
Tips for lowering stress levels at bedtime
If your stress levels tend to run high near bedtime:
- Plan an hour of quiet time before bedtime when you focus on doing activities that promote rest. Develop rituals of things that remind your body that it’s time to sleep (e.g., relaxing stretches, breathing exercises, bathing, reading).
- Make your bed a cue for sleep by moving wakeful activities (e.g., screen time, working, worrying, planning) out of the bed.
- Go to bed only when you are sleepy. Leave your bed if your mind and body are too active to promote sleep. You can usually figure out after about 20 minutes whether you’re going to fall asleep or not.
Tips for building your resources
- Build healthy routines and habits around self-care. Do activities—including healthy eating, regular exercise and sleep—at regular times, as this can help set your body-clock.
- Focus on your strengths and play to them. How you view yourself and your ability to cope with stress can influence your stress levels and sleep. As Christopher Robin in A.A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh says, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
- Self-nurture. Spend time doing things you enjoy and that make you feel good about yourself. Sometimes people spend so much time trying to manage their demands that they forget to take care of themselves. You can’t drive your car to the store to pick up groceries if you are out of gas. Similarly, if you do not spend any time taking care of yourself, you will burn out.
- Connect with others. Develop a support system. Research shows that being able to perceive social support has protective effects on maintaining physical and psychological health, including increasing resilience to stress2 and promoting sleep.3 Spend time with the people you care about and who care about you. Get involved in your community.
- Practise relaxation or meditation regularly. Calm breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and mindfulness skills can help calm and connect your body and mind. Regular practice can build up your resources and help you be better equipped to face life’s challenges.
Jon Kabat-Zinn describes meditation as a way of being: “You don’t want to start weaving the parachute when you’re about to jump out of the plane. You want to have been weaving the parachute morning, noon, and night, day in and day-out, so that when you need it, it will actually hold you.”4 Regular relaxation practice can also help you sleep better.
Tips for managing your demands
- Make a stress management plan. Set aside time during the day to manage your stressors, or demands, so your thoughts aren’t so busy when you try to wind down at night. Identify your demands: Are there problems you can solve? Are there things you have no control over? Are you worried about things that haven’t even happened and may never happen? Next to each demand, write something about your plan, resources or ability to cope. Try to figure out which demands are problems to be solved with action (e.g., rent payment is due) and which ones need to be accepted (e.g., loved one has died). Choose the best strategy for dealing with each one.
- Use time management strategies. These can include prioritizing (e.g., figure out what is essential, what is important and what can be put off), delegating (let someone else take care of it) and using lists to help you plan, monitor and execute tasks more effectively. It’s also helpful to set goals that are SMART (specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, timely).
- Try healthy thinking strategies. Challenge unrealistic thinking, focus on the positives, turn worries into action plans, use problem solving and accept the things you cannot change. Let go of perfectionism. Try thinking in shades of gray: there is a range of performance, and ‘satisfactory,’ ‘good,’ ‘very good’ and ‘excellent’ are all alternatives to ‘perfect’ and ‘fail.'
- Use emotional strategies. Identify, express and communicate your feelings. Labelling an emotion or putting your feelings into words can help reduce your negative experience of that emotion, and lead to changes in your brain and body.5 Try talking to a therapist or friend, or writing your feelings down.
- Practise social and communication strategies. Practise assertive communication by saying no and asking for help. You can reduce the number of demands on you by not taking on so many in the first place. Delegate tasks to others if you can.
Carney, C. & Manber, R. (2009). Quiet your mind and get to sleep: Solutions to insomnia for those with depression, anxiety, or chronic pain. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Ozbay, F., Johnson, D., Dimoulas, E. et al. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress: From neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry, 4(5), 35-40.
Nordin, M., Westerholm, P., Alfredsson, L. et al. (2012). Social support and sleep. Longitudinal relationships from the WOLF-Study. Psychology, 3(12), 1223-1230.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (Rev. ed.). New York: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks.
Lieberman, M., Eisenberger, N., Crockett, M. et al. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18(5), 421-428.