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Sleep Sensitivity

Why Reducing Stress Makes for Better Quality Sleep

Wendy Troxel, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist and Senior Scientist, RAND Corporation

Getting a good night’s sleep makes you feel ready to attack the day, and it’s proven to be a key tenet of overall health.

“Sleep is this one health behavior that truly affects every aspect of our health and functioning,” said Wendy Troxel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and senior behavioral and social scientist for RAND Corporation. “It impacts everything from our mental well-being to our physical health to our relationships, and even our survival.”

Attaining the right amount of quality sleep has become even more difficult over the past year as people around the world have quarantined to reduce their risk of COVID-19 exposure. And not only does an interrupted schedule greatly reduce quality of sleep, living amid a global pandemic increases stress for all, which Troxel explained can make good sleep even more difficult.

“Sleep, from an evolutionary standpoint, is a vulnerable state to be in — you’re lying down, semi-conscious, eyes are closed” she said. “So our brains are hardwired to perceive any sort of stress as a threat.”

Sleep and stress

This means managing stress is a key to quality sleep. Work is the biggest stressor in many people’s lives, and as quarantining has blurred the line between work and home lives, Troxel says better sleep may require a shift in mindset.

“Racing off to bed while your mind is still super active can be perceived as a threat,” she said. “It’s no wonder that when we give ourselves no buffer or space to wind down and quiet our minds before bed that stress can really keep us up at night.”

To create that buffer between a stress-filled work life and restful sleep, Troxel has pushed herself to enforce a no-phone policy in the bedroom, and urges others to do the same.

“Bringing a phone to bed just sends the wrong message to the brain,” Troxel said. “Phones are our primary connection to our work lives and our busy social lives. Also, light exposure at night can delay sleep onset and disrupt sleep.”

Staying together

In her upcoming book “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep,” which comes out April 20, Troxel examines an oft forgotten aspect of sleep routines.

“Sleep for most people is a shared experience,” Troxel said, “yet most research has studied sleep as an individual behavior.”

As Troxel points out, roughly two-thirds of people regularly share a bed with a partner, which means thinking of sleeping as a cooperative effort can improve the lives of many.

“One-third of our lives is shared with another human being, and yet we rarely think about how to negotiate the night with our partners,” she said. “My book examines both how sleep affects our relationships and how relationships affect our sleep.”

Whether or not you’re sharing a bed with someone, Troxel has one tip that can improve your health and raise your energy levels.

“Make sleep a priority,” she said. “Make it a non-negotiable, and recognize its importance for your own individual health and for your relationships. Because if you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for those around you.”

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