First, Get Some Sleep

Relieving Stress Through Self-Care: Part One

Last week we covered what stress is, and the chronic type of stress that causes the most suffering. This week, we’ll start focusing on some strategies to start the process of de-stressing.

In my experience, the first line of defense ALWAYS needs to be meeting our own basic, physical needs. That’s where the idea of filling your own tank first comes from – if your basic needs aren’t being met, you’re not going to have the energy or ability to help anyone else in your life, no matter how much you wish you could. Often we get trapped in a stress cycle, where something at work is causing problems, leading to us coming home and not doing what we need to do to meet our own needs. That then increases our total chronic stress, making it even harder to deal with what’s happening at work. So while yes, there are options for shifting our mindset or removing stressors completely, without tackling the most basic issues of taking care of ourselves, we’re essentially doomed to make the same mistakes over and over and over again. 

So with that being said, we start with the most important (and maybe the toughest) aspect of self-care there is: getting enough sleep.

When my stress is high, I have this REALLY GREAT habit of staying up super late reading political news. I have a bunch of ways that I justify this to myself – I need to take my mind off of whatever stress I’m feeling (by reading things that stress me out?), I need to know what’s going on in the world (but couldn’t do that at 5pm for reasons?), I can’t sleep so surely these boring articles on The Hill will knock me out (just no). 

I then end up reading until 1am or so, and then either oversleep or feel like crap the entire next day. Both options set me up for more stress, causing me to enter the aforementioned cycle of stupid, unnecessary stress. 

I’m an intelligent person. I know the kinds of effects we can expect when we’re sleep deprived:

  • Brain fog and difficulty thinking
  • Issues with short-term (and maybe long-term) memory
  • Higher likelihood of getting into a car accident (a huge personal fear)
  • Mood swings
  • Lack of impulse control (it’s a whole lot harder saying no to the Oreos when you’re tired)
  • Decreased immune function (more likely to get sick)
  • Difficult recovering from workouts (it happens while you’re sleeping)
  • Increased risk of heart disease and certain cancers

Some of these are huge in their own right (cancer, come on), but it’s also clear how lack of sleep can DIRECTLY impact our ability to deal with chronic stressors. Mood swings won’t help you keep your composure when your toddler is freaking out in public. Brain fog won’t help when you’re on a tight deadline at work. Lack of impulse control is definitely not making your life any easier when you’re deep in debt and the only thing that feels like it will bring you joy is a new phone. 

I think it’s safe to say that virtually all of us WANT to sleep more, but we often feel like we can’t. Here are some strategies I’ve used for both myself and others to help get past that block.

Get honest with yourself

In many cases, our lack of sleep is really just a case of out-of-whack priorities. Mine is the perfect example. Staying up super late to read (or watch Netflix, or scroll social media) is a CHOICE. We’re choosing temporary comfort over long-term success. That sucks, and the first step to getting better is admitting it. What choices are you making that are keeping you from getting to bed on time?

Get into a routine

Often, my political-news binging shows up when I let my nighttime routine go to the wayside. That often happens just when I need it the most – when something in my day caused a lot of stress. When I DO stick to my routine, I notice I fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly than I do when I’m lost in my phone. Everyone’s routine will look a little different, but here’s the gist of mine with an 11pm bedtime:

  • 9:30pm: Finish eating dinner. Clean up, take my dog for a quick walk. Take nighttime supplements (more below).
  • 10pm: Bedtime app on my phone reminds me that I need to be shutting off the light in one hour. Say goodnight to anyone I’m texting, plug my phone in away from my bed.
  • 10:05pm – Shower. Taking a hot shower helps me calm down from the day. They also help us work with our circadian rhythm – going from the warm shower to a relatively cold room brings our body temperature down, signaling that it’s time for sleep.
  • 10:20pm – Skincare (Retin-A, moisturizer, rosehip seed oil, and usually Vaseline to top it off in the winter). This is my favorite ritual honestly. 
  • 10:30pm – Quick journal to reflect on the day (and get any anxious thoughts out of my head).
  • 10:35pm: Read in bed. I need to stick with fiction before bed for the most part, because non-fiction gets me too excited to DO things. 
  • 11:00pm – Lights out.

I don’t always fall asleep right away, but the longer I stick with my routine, the more ingrained it feels and the easier it is to fall asleep on time

If your anxiety flares up in bed, find your method of release

For me, as you saw above, it’s journaling. Writing out my feelings takes some of the pressure off. Other strategies can include: 

  • Writing out both what the stressor is and what step you’re going to take to fix it the next day (so you feel like you have a plan)
  • Doing a little movement – a couple sun salutations to help get the physical energy out.
  • Scheduling a nightly conversation/phone call with a trusted friend or family member that allows you to vent some of the stress (and also get your mind off it and onto someone you care about).
  • The most tried-and-true (and awkward to write about when your parents read your blog) method: sex! With a partner, with yourself, it doesn’t matter. Humans have been using sex for release for millennia because it works. Have fun out there.

Force a reset

If you’re stuck in the loop of staying up too late and sleeping in too late, it can be really hard to get back into a normal sleep schedule. There are two options for getting back to normal: 

Gradually adjust your bedtime and wake time. If you’re trying to get into a brand new habit of waking up at 6am when you’ve been waking up at 12pm for years, taking it slow could be a good option. To do this, you’ll start adjusting your bedtime back 15-30 minutes at a time. In turn, you’ll adjust your wake time back by the same amount. So if right now you go to sleep at 4am and wake up an 12pm, you’ll spend a week going to sleep at 3:30am and waking up at 11:30am. Keep at it until you reach your intended goals.

The nuclear option. You’re going to have to feel some pain first. Force the reset, preferably by making yourself get up early after a night of Netflix binging until 2am. Get up at 6am. Be tired all day, and therefore also into the night. Even better, get a workout in that day! No, it’s not the time to max your squat, but a solid exercise session using lighter weights and lots of reps will tire you out even more. Implement your nighttime routine and take advantage of the exhaustion. You may need to do this a few nights as your body resets.

Utilize helpful supplements

First, I am not a doctor and don’t recommend you add any supplements to your diet before you check in with yours. That being said, I do utilize a few things in my evening routine (and one OTC medication when I’m desperate). Proceed with caution.

A magnesium supplement can work wonders, and is probably something you’d benefit from generally if you work out. They come in pill and powdered drink form, and both are great! Studies on supplemental magnesium have shown that it can help those who suffer from poor sleep get a better night’s rest. I take a generic ZMA supplement every night.

Melatonin is the hormone that makes you feel sleepy. It works mostly with the light – as it gets darker, melatonin increases, signaling time for bed. Since we look at screens all day (and use lights at home all night), it’s pretty common to have melatonin levels that are all out of whack. If you have to be staring at screen close to bedtime, consider getting a pair of blue-light blocking glasses. Mine do seem to have an effect for me (and decrease the headaches I get when I’m looking at my laptop for too long). There are also foods that have high levels of naturally occurring melatonin that you could consider eating as part of dinner or a snack before bed. Pistachios are particularly useful for this! Finally, you can take a melatonin supplement. This is my preferred tactic. Start with the lowest dosage you can find (3mg or less).

My last resort when I’ve had a whole week’s worth of bad sleep and have caved to my unhelpful night-reading habits – one Benadryl. I don’t really recommend it, but it knocks you out in a pinch. I notice that I don’t feel as rested as I would the next day as I’d expect, but it does let me forcibly reset my sleep pattern, so I’m on track for the days to come. Know that you WILL probably feel groggy for an hour or so the next morning, so best to be taken on a day you can relax.

None of this worked? Consider a sleep study

If none of these tactics put a dent in your insomnia (and you’re SURE you’re being honest with yourself about the things you’re doing around bedtime that may disturb your sleep), it’s time to consider getting a sleep study done. Sleep apnea is common, dangerous, and treatable. Or there may be something else impeding your ability to get or stay asleep (hormone imbalances chief among them). When nothing is working, take advantage of the medical care available to you. It may be a relatively simple fix that will change your life.

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