Break the vicious cycle of stress and poor sleep by noticing when you’re wound up and taking steps to relax
Do you struggle with sleep, and then either feel like a total zombie the next day, or jittery and wired? If so, then you are not alone. One of the culprits behind poor sleep is stress – but the catch is, most of us are so used to living in a state of stress, we don’t even realise we are stressed, because it has become the new ‘normal’.
The Australian Psychological Society’s Stress And Wellbeing survey showed Aussies in 2015 were more stressed than ever before in the survey’s history. Research conducted recently by Medibank confirmed that the number of Australians affected by stress had risen to 4.9 million in 2017, compared to 3.7 million a decade earlier. Significantly, it was also found that 44% of respondents cited inadequate sleep as a factor in their stress levels.
An overused survival mechanism
Stress is a natural response that helps us get things done, and in extreme situations, survive potentially deadly situations. It heightens alertness and mobilises the body’s resources to maximise chances of survival. However, in the absence of regular encounters with large predators intent on eating us, we have taken to projecting that response onto any scenario we perceive as threatening, such as not meeting a deadline or having a long to do list.
The pattern of being constantly under stress can wreak havoc with our ability to fall asleep easily, and enjoy a restful night’s sleep. Being unaware of our stress levels compounds this problem. We cannot change something we are not aware of.
How stressed are you, really?
There’s a saying among health professionals that the body never lies. If you aren’t sure about your true stress levels, which are often higher than what we realise, your body can provide you with an objective reading.
- How are you breathing? If you are taking fast, shallow breaths that feel like they’re only going into your upper chest, this is a sign of stress. So is holding your breath. When you are relaxed, you tend to take longer, deeper, more filling breaths that feel like the air is going right down towards your abdomen.
- Are you tensing your muscles? Grinding your teeth, clenching your fists, even frowning and tensing your neck or shoulders are all indicators of stress. Your muscles are quick to contract when you are under stress, not unlike making sure all your springs are wound up and ready to be released in case you need to bolt or lash out.
- Is your posture hunched over? Notice how the traditional boxing stance is hunched forward in a protective pose to shield vulnerable areasof the body. This is similar to the ‘fight or flight posture’, an evolutionary mechanism by which we instinctively try to protect our vital organs. Conversely, when you feel safe and relaxed, you will notice your body is physically ‘laid back’ with your spine straight, shoulders back and arms freely extended. Notice what your posture typically does.
- Is your heart racing? An increase in heart rate and blood pressure is one of the first physiological signs of stress. This is easy to detect when your heart is pounding.
Four ways to let go of stress
The good news is that once we become aware of the our stress levels, we can start taking simple steps to remedy it. Check in regularly with your body throughout the day, and when you notice the signs of stress, try these easy exercises to shift into a calmer state.
- Steer away from thoughts that are creating stress, and make a conscious choice to focus on ones that are serving you, instead. Your state of mind has a powerful effect on regulating your stress levels.
- Focus on your breathing and deliberately start taking slower, deeper and more rhythmic breaths. This is one of the oldest and most practical methods for calming your nervous system.
- Loosen up your muscles, starting from your feet and legs, moving through your torso and then your hands and arms. Finish with your shoulders, neck and facial muscles. Tense each muscle group tightly in turn, then allow yourself to soften and relax those contracted muscle fibres.
- Stretch out your spine, open up your posture, roll back your shoulders. The link between your posture and your nervous system works both ways. When you signal to your brain that you feel safe by adjusting the positioning of your body, your levels of stress hormones will begin to dissipate in response.
Once you get into the habit of loosening up during the day, you will be in a more relaxed state when it’s time for bed. This in turn will help you drift blissfully away to dreamland!