Stress is one of the most common causes of chronic insomnia: some tips to improve your sleep
Article from the Novasalud journal, 2020 edition – Novasalud is a center dedicated to providing specialized services in mental health and addiction through a multidisciplinary team
Betty Pardey – Medical Surgeon, Neurologist (Chile) – In times of crisis like today, where we face difficulties that affect all spheres of our lives, where we endure the high cost of living, unjust situations, experience tremendous personal insecurities as well as other misfortunes, stress has increased significantly.
Sustained stress is a detrimental state for health. It leads to anxiety and depression and is recognised as one of the most common causes of chronic insomnia.
In these unfortunate times, we end the day very tired, worried, anxious and irritable, with significant mental and physical tension. We go to bed without unwinding and once in bed, our mind strays to pessimistic and negative scenarios that increase the uncertainty and difficulty in falling asleep. By being unable to sleep, we lay in bed mulling over these negative thoughts again and again, until we finally fall asleep for a few hours from exhaustion. The alarm clock then surprises us by telling us it’s time to get up, which we do with little motivation to begin the new day.
The negative impact that poor sleep has on our mind, mood, strength and health makes it difficult for us to deal with and resolve the difficulties we encounter in a creative manner.
It is important to understand that difficulties in falling and staying asleep due to this stressful state stem from being in a hyperalert state, from brain hyperexcitability, which makes it difficult for sleep systems to take over when necessary.
Falling asleep involves starting with a state of physical relaxation, emotional calmness and peace of mind, which inactivates the brain circuits supporting the alert state, and progresses to the domain of such circuits that initiate and support sleep.
We must therefore address getting better sleep. To that end, steps that strengthen our feelings of well-being and reduce worries and the hyperalert state must be developed.
Below I have made a few recommendations to improve sleep quality:
- Vent feelings of fear, anger, sadness, despair, frustration. Don’t bottle them up. Recognize that they are an appropriate response to a crisis situation and it is helpful to accept them, without them controlling our behaviour. Better still, don’t act reactively, but instead, respond to it assertively.
- Constantly send a message to our subconscious mind that, despite having these feelings “I’m going to sleep well”.
- Encourage family activities and get-togethers with friends, which strengthen affective relationships.
- Find ways to make yourself laugh as a way of relaxing and dealing with difficulties in a creative manner.
- Spread generosity. Neuroscience research shows that generous behaviour is one of the pillars of the “state of well-being”. In these times of crisis, helping our family, neighbours, friends or simply our fellow man, helps to encourage hope for a better future.
- Live more focussed in on the moment (Mindfulness).
- Do physical activity on a regular basis, and, even better, do it in groups. Doing
exercise on a regular basis improves brain neurochemistry, metabolic activity, it tones muscles, prevents painful contractures and excessive muscle tension that threaten good sleep.
Before going to bed it is helpful to reduce high levels of mental activity and take our attention away from worries. This is achieved by distracting the mind and to this end it is helpful to:
- Partake in leisure activities with our partner and/or relatives
- Talk with our relatives about the activities we have done
- Do some light and short reading
- Listen to music that invokes pleasant emotions in us
- Do a relaxation or restorative yoga routine
- Do a meditation routine
- Do a yoga nidra routine
Anxious thoughts and negative emotions, which prevent us from falling asleep, tend to come to mind when going to bed. We can help ourselves with the following practices:
- Keep a notepad beside the bed to write the cause of distress and worry; write down to have to deal with this issue the following day, when awake. “This is my time to sleep, I will deal with it tomorrow” is a positive statement that sends a message to our conscience and if we include a pleasant mental visualization, this message also reaches our subconscious mind, thus making the statement more effective.
- Think of calming images – a calm sea, a beautiful landscape, imagine yourself walking barefoot on the beach – which makes it possible to create a calm state that prompts sleep.
- Focus the mind on breathing, which helps dispel worrying thoughts. The dynamics of abdominal breathing is relaxing in itself. If we are not used to doing this, we can place a light book on the abdomen and breathe making it slowly rise and fall.
- Show gratitude: we have many things and many people to be grateful for. Focusing our attention on gratitude places the balance on what we have and have achieved, while counteracting feelings of sadness, anger and distress.
If we awaken in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, we should get out of bed and go to another area – couch, mat, chair- to do the relaxing activities recommended above. Staying in bed mulling over things keeps us from sleeping well, since it establishes a link and negative conditioning that associates bed with sleeplessness and being awake, instead of with sleep. This association is a powerful factor that perpetuates the inability to sleep.
If following these recommendations isn’t sufficient in encouraging better sleep, then medical, psychological and spiritual help is necessary. We are neither supermen nor superwomen. It is imperative to recognize that we sometimes need help from others.