You’re probably familiar with lying awake at night or tossing and turning, or with an early wake-up call you didn’t really want. Perhaps not every night, but we’ve all been there once or twice. And that’s often thanks to stress in our lives, stress is the most common cause of sleep disruption. Keep reading to find out how to switch off your stress so you can rest easy and sleep well.
Sleep is the foundation of our wellbeing, and when it’s disrupted, the next can really feel like a struggle. We might feel physically tired or exhausted, might feel more emotional or irritable or have difficulty concentrating on tasks at work or understanding the kids’ homework. And when we don’t sleep well, we find it much harder to manage our stress response.
Funnily (annoyingly) enough, stress tends to be the same. When we’re under pressure, have lots going on at once, or feel anxious or worried about something it can interfere with our ability to function as usual and meet daily responsibilities or tasks - even the ones we do every day like showering or eating breakfast.
Heard the phrase ‘tired but wired’? When you feel tired but your brain won’t stop thinking - about where your birth certificate is, if that email was too blunt, or whether you’ll remember to pick up your lunch as you head to work tomorrow morning. Those slightly panic-inducing, mind-racing thoughts really interrupt us from drifting off.
Unfortunately, stress is the most common disruptor of our sleep - it tells our brain we need to stay alert and lookout for danger (even when there isn't any real danger). And most of us are feeling somewhat stressed by something at the moment, whether it’s the cost of living crisis, the pressure we put on ourselves or trying to juggle a lot at once (or anything else). So to protect our sleep, we need to learn ways to switch off our stress.
Can we just switch our stress off?
Now, it’s not as simple as flipping a switch or getting rid of it. Sorry. However, we can find ways to quieten the noise, relax and reduce stress levels, and perhaps accept it and put it to one side when we’re trying to do something else - like sleep.
It’s important to consider addressing the causes of our stress when we’re not trying to fall asleep, by making time to identify our stressors and finding ways that help us manage them, which will look a little different for everyone. It’s also helpful to develop stress management techniques into your daily routines so we have a toolkit to rely on when we need it, because trying to figure out how to feel better in the moment of not feeling good, stressed, or sad for example, isn’t easy to do.
To sleep well, we need to reach a few levels of calm - physically, we want our heart rate and body temperature to drop a little. Emotionally we want to feel comfortable and safe, so we’re not plagued by worries and stresses. Mentally we want to be switched off from day-to-day tasks and to-do lists. And we don’t need to be thinking, worrying or stressing about anything (big or small) as we lay in bed.
3 ways to switch off your stress to sleep well
Here are a few ways you can try out to help you switch off to your stress, reduce cortisol levels and practise stress management techniques.
Journaling is a helpful stress management technique that helps us visualise and process our stress levels, the causes of it, and how we can change some thoughts or behaviours to be more helpful. For example, we might notice we’ve been under a lot of pressure at work and could ask for some help from a colleague, make time to relax and take the pressure off by having a long catch-up with a friend, and decide to be a bit kinder to ourselves and recognise how well we’ve done at work too. Thinking about all this as we’re hoping to fall asleep would likely lead to feeling more awake than before!
When we’ve got a lot on our minds as we get ready for bed or lay awake, jotting some notes down can help us switch off so we can sleep better. Make a note of important things to do or remember, dump your thoughts on a page to stop your ruminating in the moment, and jot down your worries and woes to give yourself some extra space in your mind to relax and feel able to fall asleep. Once it’s written down, you can put it out of your mind till the morning.
Move your body
Building a regular routine of exercise, whether that looks like hitting the gym 4 times a week or cycling to work, a brisk evening walk, household chores, or even gardening, can help us reduce stress and use up some energy so we feel sleepy later on. Vigorous exercise right before bed isn’t that helpful though, so be sure to make time earlier in the day to fit this in where it works for you.
Try slower forms of movement closer to bedtime, like yoga or tai chi or other meditation-based movements. This will help you to feel calmer, relaxed and ready to drift off as your head hits the pillow. Again, it uses up a bit of energy too that might make you feel sleepier, without raising your heart rate or body temperature too.
Make time to unwind
Schedule time to relax, switch off and unwind from the everyday pressures we all face, as regularly as you can. This might look like spending an afternoon taking care of yourself, by moving or stretching, eating something nutritious or meal-prepping, having a long bath or binge-watching a bit of Netflix. Or it might look like meditating for 10 minutes every morning, going for a stroll at lunchtime when you can, or finding a few minutes to have a cup of tea on your own between putting the kids to bed and moving on to the next job.
Having a wind-down routine before bed can be hugely beneficial for helping us sleep, and switch off to stress. Get ready for bed before you do something to relax, pyjamas on, teeth brushed whatever you need to do so you can just jump into bed as soon as you feel sleepy. You might try reading, watching something light-hearted or you’ve seen before, or listening to a podcast or meditation. Whatever helps you relax and feel sleepy.
We might try these out close to bedtime, just be conscious of exercise that will raise your heart rate or body temperature, make you feel uneasy or uncomfortable, or overthink things you need to do. And each day looks different, and so do our moods and abilities, so we might try a warm bath right before bed, but do a quick workout or walk earlier in the evening. Or we might jot the important things to remember down as we put our phone on charge before we sleep, but save the deep journaling for the morning routine.
Try some options out, try to build a regular practice, and see how it improves your sleep - and even your stress levels.
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