Stressed and Sleepless? 6 Ways to Get a Better Night’s Rest
Posted on 18 November 2016
Sleep is elusive in the smartphone age. And stress compounds the problem, making it nearly impossible to relax as screens light up. Quick glimpses of incessant notifications trigger agitated nervous systems to release floods of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, causing blood pressure to spike and muscles to tighten. Whatever the cause of anxiety-induced sleeplessness—this past week has offered many—National Sleep Foundation guidelines say adults still need seven to nine hours of sleep per night just to stay healthy. Without rest, we’re more susceptible to heart disease, obesity, impaired immune function, insomnia, and even depression. Here, two experts sort out restorative solutions to calm the mind and body.
Rise and Shine
Getting out of bed at the same time each day is one key to fighting sleeplessness, says UCLA psychology clinic director Danielle Keenan-Miller, Ph.D. Napping or sleeping later than normal can actually throw the body’s natural rhythm off and “set people up for a protracted course of insomnia,” she says.
This rule applies even if you’ve experienced a few days of anxiety-related tossing and turning, Keenan-Miller notes. “The body naturally compensates for lost sleep; it knows how to bounce back,” she says. Seeing sunlight also helps. The earlier you open your eyes each day, the easier it will be to fall asleep that night. Exposure to late-afternoon sun also helps you stay asleep. “The angle at which sun comes into our eyes matters,” Keenan-Miller says, adding, “Our bodies have evolved to be responsive to natural patterns of sunlight on earth.”
Seek Sleep-Promoting Foods
Nutritionist Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D.N., author of Eating in Color, says that boosting levels of melatonin throughout the day can also help regulate sleep patterns. Tart cherries are packed with it; she suggests eating some with breakfast and at night. “Almonds are a rich source of magnesium, a mineral that’s necessary for good sleep,” she adds. Black rice, sesame, and pumpkin seeds are also good sources. Then there’s turkey, full of tryptophan that makes us drowsy when eaten with carbs, another sleep-inducing food.
Foods high in caffeine obviously won’t bring on a peaceful slumber. Surprisingly, alcohol doesn’t help either. Keenan-Miller says it can aid sleep initially, but those glasses of Sancerre “disrupt sleep architecture” by waking you up in the middle of the night.
Develop a Relaxing Routine
Studies have shown that light exercise like evening power walks can function as an antidepressant, clear the mind, and help bring on a restorative night of sleep. Continue a relaxed routine as bedtime nears: Avoid stressors like paying bills or checking email. Read a book or pet the cat; Largeman-Roth also recommends settling nerves with chamomile tea.
For a good night’s rest, you need a cool room that’s free of ambient light. “Starting each evening, avoid electronics that emit a blue light,” says Keenan-Miller. This is because the body responds to sunlight to set sleep patterns, but blue light disrupts these environmental cues. Once you’re lying in bed, try deep-breathing techniques borrowed from yoga class, or body-focused contemplative practices. Keenan-Miller says grounding exercises like body scan mediation (being aware of each body part, sequentially) and progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and relaxing muscles) are both good options because they’re “physiologically relaxing and boring.”
Get Out of Bed
If you find yourself tossing and turning, get up. Keenan-Miller recommends going to a different part of the house to do something boring in dim light. Read a catalog or recipe book or do something else low-key, she says: “Don’t stay in bed. A bed is for sleep, sex, and nothing else.” She even discourages aimless lounging on lazy mornings because it detracts from the mental association between the mattress and sleep.
As the clock ticks toward morning, don’t let catastrophic thoughts take over. Accept that you can’t sleep. Keenan-Miller says a couple of nights in a row of insomnia won’t have a huge impact on subsequent days. After all, marathoners can run without great sleep the night before, she points out, and surgeons on call perform well, too. “Try to get the anxiety out of your head and onto a piece of paper,” she suggests. Keenan-Miller recommends making two columns: concerns and potential solutions. Fill them out, then put away the paper so there’s no temptation to dwell on it. And, she points out, a solution can simply be the acknowledgment that there is no easy fix.