One in 4 adults struggles with sleep. Sleep is when repair and recovery take place. Without adequate sleep, major health risks like weight gain and heart disease are more prevalent. We asked three leading stress specialists, credentialed by the American Institute of Stress, to share their thoughts and favorite techniques to help us fall asleep and stay asleep.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven,” wrote John Milton in his 1663 poem, “Paradise Lost.” Our thoughts can make sleep a virtual hell or a blissful slumber. It’s 3 a.m. and you’ve been awake for hours. Your anxious, fearful thoughts seem uncontrollable. Memories of past regrets are causing you stress, as are fearful thoughts about your annual job evaluation tomorrow. You’re stressed out. What can you do?
Take control of your thoughts
The key, according to James C. Petersen, Ph.D., FAIS, founder of Stressmaster International, and creator of the Stress Mastery Questionnaire stress test, is to accept the negative thought but take control of what you choose to think about. Thoughts are internal behaviors that are learned and seem automatic. But you are not a slave to your thoughts. They can be changed.
You can’t react to a negative and positive thought at the same time. When a stressful thought pops into your head, you can recall positive memories to replace them. Remember happy events, such as the birth of your child, getting married, or perhaps a good experience with a loved one, to overthrow stress-provoking thoughts. When the fearful thought cycles back, replace it with a positive memory that will relax your mind and body.
Stop negative thinking by focusing on positive “self-talk.” Worried about a job interview? Focus on your skills and talents that make you qualified for the job. Make a habit of refocusing on positive thoughts.
Control your breathing
Cynthia Howard, RN, CNC, Ph.D., FAIS, chief energy officer of E! Leadership, suggests using deliberate breathing techniques to fall asleep. The stress reaction’s primitive survival instinct prepares the body to fight or run away, changing your breathing pattern and making it shallower. Learning to use deep breathing practices throughout the day and right before bed can help you learn to relax enough to fall asleep.
A good standard is the “count of 4” breathing technique. Take a deep breath in on a count of 4, hold it on a count of 4 and then exhale on a count of 4. Wait on a count of 4 and repeat. Use this to help you slow down your mind and reduce tension. Do this five to seven times a day, and think about doing it for 15 seconds every hour. This new habit will help to reset your stress reaction making it easier to relax and fall asleep.
Do maintenance on your brain
American Institute of Stress Fellow Jeff Jernigan, Ph.D., BCPPC, FAIS is CEO of the Hidden Value Group, specializing in helping people throughout the world in the wake of mass disasters and violence through healthcare, education, and leadership development. Dr. Jernigan suggests you think of your brain as a high-rise office building bustling with activity. When the day is over and the office is empty, a maintenance crew sweeps in making repairs, cleaning up the trash, and putting everything back in order for the next day.
Our brain is the command and control center for everything that goes on in our body, especially where stress and restorative sleep is concerned. To remain healthy and resilient, our brains require proper nutrition and sufficient exercise.
Your brain consumes 28 percent of the energy your body needs each day. A healthy diet and adequate exercise is key to our body’s ability to produce the neurotransmitters our brains need to communicate with one another.
Anger, frustration, and other emotions stress the body with a chemical cocktail that erodes your immune system making you susceptible to a wide variety of stress related disorders. Therefore, it is important to balance stressful experiences with nourishing ones to stay optimistic and resilient.
We need at least three hours of exercise each week to produces a protein that triggers the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is involved in the replacement and repair of brain cells. Without this function, learning ability decreases, reason and logic are not as sharp, short-term memory fails more often, and self-control can go out the window.
Controlling our mind’s narratives before sleep, therapeutic breathing, proper nutrition, and exercise will help you fall deeply asleep and allow your brain’s maintenance crew to conduct their nocturnal duties so you can wake up refreshed and alert to take on the challenges of another day less reactive to the stresses of life. For more information about stress and many free resources to help you navigate life’s stressful moments, including two free magazines, visit stress.org.