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How to Stop Stress from Hijacking Your Rest

Heidi Hanna, Ph.D.

Executive Director, The American Institute of Stress

Everything that has life has a rhythm, pulse or beat — and flatlines are deadly. So it should come as no surprise that our current always-on lifestyle has us caught up in a toxic relationship with stress and sleep. According to The American Institute of Stress, 75-90 percent of all medical visits are stress-related, and chronic stress in the United States costs upwards of $600 billion annually.

Stress as fuel enables us to get out of bed in the morning. During the day it allows us to focus and pay attention to what’s most important — but that’s as long as the demands are handled within a reasonable amount of time. When we constantly feel spread too thin, our metabolic rhythms get pushed out of whack in an effort to adapt in a more efficient and effective way. Unfortunately, these adjustments also cause alterations in the brain and body that quickly shift from helping to hurting us. 

Slowing down the body

Some of the serious brain-hijacking consequences of sleepless nights include diminished executive function, cognitive flexibility and processing speed. Sleep disturbances increase activity in the part of the brain that’s correlated with anxiety, as our brains keep us on high alert even when it means we sacrifice things like being patient, loving and kind.  

So how can you quiet your mind and calm your brain to prime it for optimal sleep in the midst of a stress-filled life? Some of the best sensory techniques to shift from “fight or flight” sympathetic activation to “rest and digest” parasympathetic restoration include:

  1. Sound: Listening to calming music or binaural beats that provide a mellow soundtrack can help unwind the mind. 
  2. Smell: Aromatherapy quickly calms the brain through the olfactory centers that have a direct link to the amygdala to calm and soothe.
  3. Sight: Guided visualization takes you to another place — where you can imagine being in relaxing environment such as the beach, enhanced by sounds of waves gently crashing.
  4. Taste: Teas that include plant elements like chamomile, lavender or valerian are known to soothe.
  5. Touch: A hot bath or jacuzzi increases body temperature temporarily and then enhances relaxation as the body cools down.

With a more restful nervous system, breathing patterns naturally begin to adjust to a more rhythmic pattern. From this place, we can nudge the brain to not sleep more efficiently and wake up seeing the world through a better lens.

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