We all know that Stress, Sleep and Anxiety don’t mix. High levels of stress and anxiety can wreck our chances of getting quality shut-eye by keeping our bodies wide awake and prolonging the time it takes to fall asleep. However, many people don’t realize that the inverse is also true. Insufficient sleep can contribute to stress and anxiety. In fact, research shows that a sleepless night can reduce our ability to cope with stress — so when we don’t get a good night’s sleep, we’re likely to feel even more anxious.
This loop leads to a vicious cycle that can have dire consequences for our health and well-being, putting us at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, psychiatric disorders and countless other health problems. Not to mention the negative effects it can have on our work performance and personal relationships.
The good news? You don’t have to be stuck in this vicious cycle indefinitely. From improving your sleeping environment to de-stressing with a weighted blanket, here are a few ways you can break the stress-sleep cycle and take back control of your health.
1. Use your bed solely for sleep (and sex)
One of the key tenets of sleep hygiene is to make the bedroom a place for sleep and sex only. Experts say this rule helps to strengthen the association of the bed with rest and relaxation, making it easier to drift off to sleep. To give your brain the right idea, create an environment conducive to sleep and avoid working, watching television and eating in the bedroom at all costs.
If you can’t sleep, don’t stew in bed, as this will only cause your brain to associate your bedroom with frustration, sleep and anxiety. Instead, leave the bedroom and do a relaxing activity in low light until you feel the tugs of sleep.
2. Stop ‘clock watching’
Glancing at the clock on your nightstand every few minutes and mentally calculating how many hours of shut-eye you’ll get if you fall asleep immediately isn’t helpful. On the contrary, it’s likely causing you unnecessary anxiety and keeping you awake for even longer.
To keep yourself from “clock watching,” remove timekeeping devices such as phones, clocks and smartwatches from the bedroom. If you must sleep with an alarm clock, consider turning the clock to face the wall or covering it with a blanket.
3. Turn off the tech
In a similar vein, ban all electronic devices from the bedroom and try to limit their use before bedtime. Tablets, smartphones and laptops can keep your brain stimulated and alert at a time when you should be winding down for bed. Even just a quick glance at your social media feed can activate different regions of your brain and make it harder to fall asleep.
Additionally, the light from these devices can interfere with your sleep by suppressing the body’s natural production of melatonin. To counteract this, try to shut off electronics at least 30 minutes before bed.
4. Wind down with a weighted blanket
Whether you struggle with occasional middle-of-the-night worries or a full-on anxiety disorder, a weighted blanket is a must-have in your relaxation toolkit. Weighted blankets deliver firm, gentle pressure that calms the central nervous system, triggering the release of feel-good hormones that reduce stress and ease the mind. Scientists say that deep touch pressure, like that produced by a weighted blanket, may alleviate anxiety symptoms and promote a calmer night’s sleep.
Note that weighted blankets aren’t the only weighted product that can help you relax and get a better night’s sleep. For instance, weighted eye masks produce the same relaxing effect on the body and come with the bonus of blocking light in the evening, which can make it harder to fall asleep. Experiment with different weighted products and find what works best for you.
5. Avoid caffeine
Whereas weighted blankets help calm the nervous system, caffeine does the exact opposite. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, triggering the “fight or flight response” and potentially contributing to feelings of fear, dread and uneasiness when consumed in high dosages.
To avoid these unpleasant side effects, try to gradually reduce your caffeine intake. Be aware that coffee and energy drinks aren’t the only sources of caffeine — tea, chocolate, sodas and energy bars can also contain caffeine in high enough dosages to keep you up at night.
6. Schedule worry time
Scheduling “worry time” into your day may seem counterintuitive. After all, chronically stressed or anxious people tend to spend most of the day trying to stop worrying and catastrophizing. But as it turns out, setting aside time to worry intentionally can help lower your stress levels and make sleep come easier at night. That’s because designating a small part of your day to stress and worry reassures your anxious brain that you’re not shrugging off your problems but rather not worrying about them at that precise moment. This gives you more time to focus on problems that are actually within your control, which may result in less anxiety at night. It’s worth a shot!
7. Write a to-do list
Another useful strategy for reducing stress before bedtime is to write a to-do list. Similar to scheduling worry time, writing about your upcoming tasks allows you to offload some of your stress, freeing up more room in your brain for calming thoughts that are conducive to a good night’s rest. Consider keeping a pen and paper by your nightstand. That way, you’re always prepared in case late-night stress and worry come to pay you a visit.
There’s No Shame in Getting Help
With certain lifestyle changes and improvements in your sleep hygiene, breaking the stress-sleep cycle is possible. However, if you’ve tried the tips above and still struggle with stress and insomnia, you may need to seek professional treatment. There’s no shame in this. Millions of American adults are in the same boat. By seeking help, you can take steps to get your sleep and mental health back on the right track.