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Sleep Wellness While Under Stress

By Dan LaVine | 04.22.2020

While some people deal with insomnia all the time, many especially struggle with being able to fall asleep when they are going through an especially stressful period. Whether you have a documented anxiety disorder or simply a lot on your mind, it can be endlessly challenging to relax and power down your brain. According to Michael Grandner, Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona, “People who don’t sleep well are more likely to become depressed or anxious if they weren’t before. If they have a recurrent depression or anxiety disorder it will not only make it worse, it will make it more likely to come back if it’s in remission.” When you are feeling stressed, taking care of yourself and being in-tune with your needs without judgment is paramount.

We’ve rounded up some techniques for getting good rest, even when it feels like everything else is tumultuous—because any conflict is hard to handle if you aren’t sleeping well.

*What You Do During The Day Matters

We often talk about how important routine is when it comes to going to sleep at night and it definitely is. But it’s also important to structure your day and make it feel full—basically wearing yourself out during the day with a sense of purpose, list of tasks and exercise can help you sleep better at night. In this article for Apartment Therapy, Grandner is also quoted explaining that, “Sleep is very rhythmic...The body loves predictability.” And, when you can’t control what’s going on around you, creating a consistent routine that you can control—even if it’s temporary—can help you better organize your sleep.

*Don’t Engage With Heavy Media Before Bed

Reading and watching TV before bed are ways that most of us chill out in the evening. But when you are in a state of heightened stress, sometimes staying away from serious content right before bed can be helpful. Try cutting out news, intense TV shows, movies or literary plots and instead try to read a soothing poem, watch a funny sitcom—keep it light and give your brain a pre-sleep break.

*You Already Know This One…Put Your Phone Away

Yup, put it away. Place it on charge, set it to 'do not disturb' or power it down and leave it. That’s it, that’s the tip!

*Make Getting Ready For Bed An Event

If you don’t already, establish a routine before bed that isn’t a chore but a treat. Wash your face with a luxurious scrub, exfoliate, moisturize. Spritz a scent you like over your bed. Light a candle, make some tea, wear real pajamas. Make it an event like eating a special meal, but do it each night. Go to bed feeling like your best self every night of the week, regardless of how the day went. We wrote an even more detailed guide to developing a healthy routine that you can find here. Make your decadent nighttime routine extra fun by sharing with a friend or loved one—celebrate doing nice things for yourself!

If you’ve found yourself working from home or out of a job and sheltering in place these days, the separation between the day time and sleep time is even more crucial. Your evening routine—when you stop working for the night, when you stop drinking coffee, what room you spend time in if you aren’t leaving your house and when you exercise are all the more important in cluing your brain into going to sleep.

*Use Some Specific Techniques To Stop Stress In Its Tracks

5-4-3-2-1 Method

If you find yourself trying to nod off to sleep but feel your brain thinking through something weeks away or catastrophizing something you saw on the news, it’s a good time to bring yourself back to the present with this technique (it’s good for any time really, not just going to bed). You can say these aloud or in your head, whatever works best for you, but sometimes the act of slowly saying them out loud can help ground you and interrupt any anxious or panicky physical and mental feelings you may experience.

5. Name 5 things you can see.

4. Name 4 things around you that you can touch.

3. Name 3 things around you that you can hear.

2. Name 2 things that you can smell (you can also think about and imagine two scents you like)

1. Name 1 thing that you can taste—maybe it’s your toothpaste. In this case, you can also imagine something you like the taste of if you don’t have any taste in your mouth.

The point of this exercise is to slow down and tune-in to the present moment you occupy. Observe it thoughtfully and by the time you get to one, whatever loop your brain was running in should be broken.

*Breathing Techniques

Practice mindful breathing and slow your anxious self down by lying on your back with one hand on the top of your stomach and the other on your heart. Let your shoulders be heavy. Open and relax your hips as you inhale deeply through your nose while you count to five, let the air fill up your belly, then ribcage, then upper chest. Once you feel like you’ve gotten a full breath, hold it – then exhale through your nose in a long, smooth motion. Doing this for five to ten minutes before bed can help you put anxious thoughts away.

Some other ways to power down at the end of the day is to do some gentle yoga stretches, and as you do try to really feel the stretch. Avoid engaging in any more strenuous exercises before bed and cool it with the caffeine by 1 pm. If you are feeling especially anxious, remember that caffeine and alcohol can both exacerbate those feelings. While quitting caffeine cold turkey could cause other forms of stress, being mindful of your daily intake and not consuming anything caffeinated after the middle of the day can also help you get better rest.

When you are stressed, it can be particularly hard to stick to any sort of routine—it can even be hard to get out of bed in the morning. It’s essential that when you are experiencing higher stress levels than normal that you don’t repudiate yourself if you don’t stick to the schedule you planned or if you sleep in late or stay up too late. Keep reminding yourself that tomorrow is another day and every day is an opportunity to get into a healthy habit.