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by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


Ways to beat stress-related insomnia

We all know we need sleep; when we don't get enough sleep we have unpleasant mental, physical and emotional symptoms to the point that we will seek medical help to cure both the insomnia and its results. Sleep keeps us healthy, mentally sharp and able to cope with stress more effectively, among other things. Unfortunately, the more stressed we are, the less sleep we often get, which can cause a vicious downward cycle.  

Some of the reasons that stress and sleep deprivation go together include:

Many people take their work home with them, either physically or metaphorically. With today’s demanding workloads it’s often difficult to come home from a day of problem-solving and issue-managing and simply stop thinking about them. Parents at home with children, people who work from home and students can all experience this as well, even if they are not physically changing environments when work ends. If you find yourself still trouble-shooting at the end of the day, and the thoughts won’t seem to leave your mind, this can make sleep become much more difficult. It can also wake you in the middle of the night, as you transition between sleep stages.

Over Activity
A hectic, busy life can not only keep your thoughts racing, but also rob you of time you can actually spend sleeping. If you find yourself pushing your bedtime back further and further to get things done, or getting up earlier and earlier in the name of productivity, you may feel tired a lot of the time but not realise the toll lack of sleep is taking. Less than six hours sleep on a reegular basis can damage your physical and mental health.

This stress hormone cortisol, released when you are in "Flight or Flight" mode, enables you to respond quickly to crisis situations, but needs to be "switched off" to enable relaxation and sleep. Chronic stress can lead to excessive levels of cortisol, and this can disrupt healthy sleep patterns through physical discomfort such as indigestion, stomach and muscle pain, as well as...

Like overthinking, anxiety can make sleep difficult and wake you up at night. Anxiety keeps your mind busy imagining threatening scenarios and worrying about how you could deal with them. You may become preoccupied with finding solutions, or simply repeating the same pattern of anxious thoughts over and over again. That racing of your mind can rob you of sleep by keeping your cortisol levels high, making sleep harder to achieve.
Caffeine and Alcohol
People under stress tend to consume significant amounts of caffeine to get a boost that gets them going in the morning, helps them make it through the day. Caffeine can actually exacerbate stress levels and significantly affect the amount and quality of sleep you get. Stressed people often try to relax with alcohol in the evening, not realising that it can inhibit sleep, increase anxiety and exacerbate the physical symptoms of excess cortisol.

Try these techniques if you are permanently stressed and/or find yourself regularly short on sleep:

Use this exercise as a transition time between work and home - concentrating on the physical aspects will divert you from work-related thoughts and change your mental tempo. You can also do it lying in bed to help you go to sleep and if you wake in the night.

Breathe in a long, slow breath, right down into your diaphragm (you should be able to feel your belly, not your chest, going in and out) until your lungs are expanded fully (but stop before you feel you're going to burst). Breathe out slowly until your lungs are completely empty (but not so you're gasping). Breathe in and out five times like this, in your head counting up to five as you breathe in and back down from five to one as you breathe out. Keep the in and out breaths regular and flowing; don't hold the breath at any point. After five deep breaths, breathe more gently and normally and find your natural rhythm as you breathe in and out. If you can make the out breath longer, that's good.

"When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still…. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath."
Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika (15th century)

By changing your breathing, you are changing your physical response to a situation. The message your body is giving your brain is: “I am breathing in a calm, relaxed manner therefore I am in control.” As your brain registers this message, it assumes any danger has passed and deactivates the Fight or Flight response, reducing the flow of cortisol and thus your feelings of anxiety.

Physical relaxation
We hold stress in our bodies, often on a long term basis, so conscious physical and mental relaxation is beneficial to reducing your stress levels and very conducive to sleep. Once you've learned the technique it can be done at almost any time, but making a habit of doing this before you go to sleep ensures a much more restful night.

“There is no need to go to India or anywhere else to find peace. You will find that deep place of silence right in your room, your garden or even your bathtub.”
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, scientist, doctor, educator, mother (1926-2004)

Lying in bed, on the floor, or sitting comfortably, close your eyes and settle your breath as in Breathe. Now take your consciousness down to your feet and imagine them surrounded by a warm golden glow – like in the Redibrek ad, if you're old enough to remember it. Say to yourself internally, “My toes and feet are warm and relaxed; soft and heavy”. As you do so, try to release all tension from the muscles in your feet (sometimes it can help to tense, then release them).

Continue this process up your legs, abdomen, back, shoulders, arms and hands, neck, over your head and down your face until you have relaxed every muscle and visualised a golden glow enfolding your entire body. Feel each limb in turn loosen and soften like those of a rag doll. The more you practise, the better you will get at relaxing each muscle group, right down to detailed parts of your face. Check how much tension you release by relaxing your mouth and jaw, for instance.

This is a great technique to send you back to sleep when you wake up in the night, and if you do it just before nodding off, chances are you won't actually get to finish the exercise. Concentrating on the repetitive instructions to your body, and your conscious efforts to relax, divert your thoughts from anxieties and give your mind a chance to switch off.

“Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast…”
William Shakespeare, Macbeth

If you feel it would help to have an audio of this relaxation exercise, which we call "The Golden Glow", you can listen or download it FREE as an MP3 file from our website.

You will find more ways to de-stress, cope with anxiety and take control of your life in The Real Secret

 Posted by Lucy

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