Do stressful situations throw your sleep off track? You’d probably score high in sleep reactivity, a stable trait associated with insomnia. If a rough day at work kept you tossing and turning last night, then similarly charged situations—arguing with your spouse, getting bad news, preparing to speak in public—may disrupt your sleep now and then.
But what if the stress is chronic? Then it’s time to deal with it head on. Here are four ways to reduce stress and improve sleep.
Have a Physical Outlet for Stress
Persistent activation of the stress-response system results in higher-than-normal levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, all harmful to long-term health. Not only does this increase your susceptibility to chronic insomnia, but it also suppresses your immune system and elevates your risk of hypertension, heart disease, and depression. It interferes with learning and memory as well.
Exercise—jogging, swimming, bicycling, playing tennis—protects against development of stress-related disease. Immediately following a workout there’s a decrease in muscle tension and a release of body heat, which can hasten sleep onset and enhance sleep quality. Exercise can also help to elevate mood. Long-term, regular exercise tends to lower the resting heart rate, making it easier to relax.
But to maximize stress relief, choose a form of exercise you enjoy (or at least find tolerable). Regularity in the timing of workouts, like regularity in the timing of meals, is also conducive to regular sleep. Continuing practice of yoga and meditation can yield similar results.
Reach Out to Friends
Feeling overextended and stressed out can be isolating. Your instinct may be to cut people and relationships out of your life as you move full speed ahead on whatever you need to accomplish.
But having an active social support system is another key way to reduce chronic stress. Research suggests that regardless of who’s doing the talking and who’s doing the listening, interactions with friends and supportive family members helps cut down on chronic stress. Participating in group activities can also help with stress relief.
Increase Your Sense of Control When Possible
Some situations are beyond control—diseases that have no cure, job losses due to economic factors, deaths that cannot be prevented. Trying to take control of these situations will likely send your stress off the charts.
But there are situations where exerting more control affords stress relief. For instance, if you’ve got too much on your plate, separate tasks into “musts” and “shoulds” and prioritize them accordingly. To nonessential tasks just say no.
And say no when someone else tries to foist on you a responsibility you cannot fit in. You’ve watched the grandkids for the past three days—now it’s someone else’s turn.
Yes, browsing the internet for the latest political news can be invigorating. But if it tends to work you up too much, vow to tear yourself away from the iPad by 8 p.m.
No one likes monotony. Yet a degree of predictability in life tends to lower stress. Says neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, “When it comes to what makes for psychological stress, a lack of predictability and control are at the top of the list of things you want to avoid.”
If your boss is liable to throw projects your way at any time, including 3 p.m. on Friday, muster up some negotiating skills and request advance notice. If late night phone calls tend to stress you out, ask friends and family to refrain from calling after 9 p.m. If you’re having trouble making ends meet, work up a monthly budget.
The more predictable life is, the better able you will be to plan coping strategies, which will make for better stress resilience and better sleep.
What activity or strategy do you find is most helpful in lowering stress?