Stress Management Strategies: Sleep

If you commit to getting a good night's sleep, you'll find your stress management reserves growing. Here are some tips to get you started on the road to eight quality hours of sleep each night:

  • Figure out why you aren't getting enough sleep, then commit to changing your routine. Where are you wasting time during the day? How could you rearrange your schedule to get some things done earlier, allowing for an earlier bedtime? Could you rearrange your schedule to allow a later wake-up time? If you are staying up late to watch TV or surf the Internet, try skipping the media blitz for a few nights to see how the extra sleep changes your mood and energy level.

  • Create a bedtime ritual for yourself. Parents are often advised to give their sleep-resistant children a routine, but the technique works for grownups, too. Your routine should include a series of steps that are conducive to relaxation — for example, a bath or shower, then perhaps a few minutes of deep breathing or other relaxation technique; a cup of herbal tea; a good book instead of the television or computer; swapping back rubs, neck rubs, or foot rubs with a partner; writing in your journal. Then, it's lights out.

  • Try not to get into the habit of falling asleep in front of the TV. Once in the habit, falling asleep without the TV will probably take longer, and you may not sleep as well. If this happens, try some relaxation techniques.

  • If you feel you are wasting precious time by sleeping when you should be getting things done, keep reminding yourself that sleep is getting things done. While you sleep, your body is busy healing, recharging by conserving energy, growing and regenerating cells, and consolidating memory and discharging emotions through dreams. You're actually being pretty productive when you sleep, and you'll be even more productive after you've had a good sleep.

  • Don't get all stressed out about not being able to get to sleep. An occasional night of too-few ZZZs won't hurt you as long as you usually get enough sleep. Rather than lying in the dark, tossing and turning in frustration, turn on the light and find something to read. Get comfortable. Sip some warm milk or chamomile tea. Meditate. Steer your mind away from worries and think about pleasant things — not sleep, just pleasant things. Breathe. Even if you don't get to sleep, at least you'll get to relax. And you'll probably feel drowsy soon.

To treat insomnia, one technique recommended in The Breathing Book, by Donna Farhi (Henry Holt, 1996), is to lightly wind a soft cotton bandage around the forehead, eyes, and temples just before sleep. The pressure against the muscles in the face quickly induces a relaxed state.

If you are having trouble sleeping, try these suggestions:

  • Don't drink or eat anything with caffeine after lunch if you are having problems getting to sleep. That includes coffee, tea, cola, and many other sodas (check the label); certain over-the-counter pain medications and cold medications (check the label); stimulants designed to keep you awake; and even cocoa and chocolate.

  • Eat a healthy, light, low-fat, low-carbohydrate dinner. Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains instead of refined grains, and low-fat protein like fish, chicken, beans, and tofu will help your body to be in a calmer, more balanced state come bedtime. Avoid high-fat, overly processed foods in the evening. You'll be more likely to suffer digestive problems that can keep you from sleeping. (You know the feeling — getting up at 3:00 A.M. in a desperate attempt to find those Tums … )

  • Eat a light dinner. Late, large dinners are upsetting to your digestive system. For a peaceful night's sleep, make dinner your lightest meal.

  • For an evening snack, eat foods high in tryptophan, an amino acid that encourages the body to produce serotonin, a chemical that helps you to sleep. Serotonin also regulates your moods, helping you to feel good. Foods high in tryptophan include milk, turkey, peanut butter, rice, tuna, dates, figs, and yogurt. A light snack about 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime that includes any of these foods can help promote restful sleep.

  • If you are too stressed to sleep, help yourself relax with a cup of herbal tea. Herbal tea helps you to relax in three ways. Herbs such as lemon balm, chamomile, and mixes designed to promote relaxation and sleep can help to calm the body. The slow process of boiling water and steeping the tea in the steamy cup slows you down and helps you to relax and focus. Then, the process of drinking the tea requires sitting still and slowly sipping. Let yourself relax and enjoy the process as a nighttime ritual. You'll be resting soon!

  • Don't drink alcohol in the evening. While many people have a drink thinking it will help them get to sleep, alcohol actually disrupts sleep patterns, making your sleep less restful. Alcohol may also increase snoring and sleep apnea.

  • Get enough exercise during the day. A well-exercised body will fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and sleep more productively.

If you are still having problems sleeping, talk to your doctor about it. Studies show that two thirds of Americans have never been asked by their doctors how well they sleep, but 80 percent have never brought up the subject with their doctors, either. Tell your doctor you are concerned about your sleep problems. He or she may have a simple solution.

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