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Brandon Peters, M.D.

30 Days to Better Sleep: Manage Your Stress with Relaxation Techniques

By January 17, 2013

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Stress can have a major impact on your ability to fall and stay asleep. Feelings of anxiety, worry, and tension can lead to insomnia. Sometimes the cause is obvious: a lost job or loved one, a big project at work, an examination, a divorce, a trauma, and so on. In other circumstances, the underlying trigger may be less evident. When stress undermines your ability to sleep, you may benefit from relaxation techniques. What is the best way to handle stress? Learn how to manage and relieve your stress with some specific recommendations to unwind.

In an anxious state, it can become impossible to sleep at night. There is an innate "fight or flight" response programmed into your nervous system. Therefore, when you are under conditions of perceived threat, you won't accidentally nod off and put yourself in harm's way. Although this protective mechanism has served humanity well when we lived in the wild, it can be disruptive in the modern world. The stressors of life may put us in a heightened state of arousal, leading to persistent difficulties sleeping at night.

People with insomnia seem to have a higher degree of arousal, which makes it easier to stay awake during the day but harder to sleep at night. When it is time to unwind and transition to sleep, insomniacs may find their minds racing and sleep difficult to obtain. It is important to preserve a buffer zone before going to sleep and wait until sleepiness comes before retiring to bed. As part of this transition period, there are a number of relaxation techniques that can prove to be helpful.

It should be acknowledged that the exact same activity may be relaxing to one person and stress-inducing to another. For example, reading is a pastime that many people find soothing before bed. However, someone who struggles with dyslexia may find reading to be very stressful. Therefore, it is best to individualize the relaxation techniques that you utilize. It can be helpful to brainstorm a list of activities that you find relaxing. To get you started, consider these possibilities:

  • Take a warm bath or shower
  • Listen to relaxing music
  • Read a book or magazine
  • Spend time praying or meditating
  • Stretch from a lying position
  • Breathe slowly in and out
  • Write in a journal
  • Practice yoga
  • Knit, sew, or work on a craft project
  • Relax your muscles
  • Clean or organize your home
  • Take a long walk

If tension and worry is taking a toll on your sleep, it can help to dial back the anxiety by engaging in targeted relaxation techniques. Reflect on what you personally find to be a source of relaxation. Even the act of generating a list of relaxing activities can put your mind at ease as you focus on things that make you calm and happy. By incorporating these pastimes into the hour before bed, you will more readily transition to sleep and sleep better through the night. For those with persistent anxiety, it can also be helpful to speak with a professional therapist to obtain stress relief recommendations.

Check out the entire series, "How to Sleep Better in 30 Days."

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