Stress Management and Relaxtion

Learning to be physically and mentally relaxed before going to bed will help you fall asleep more quickly. Additionally, many relaxation techniques can be put to use when you wake up in the middle of the night and need to get back to sleep. Quieting your mind and body is not something that can be done immediately, so you should try to start winding down at least an hour before bed.

Some people find that reading a book, taking a bath, playing solitaire or working a crossword puzzle are good ways to slow down from activity of the day. You may want to try one or more of the following activities:

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) – PMR is a set of exercises you can use to reduce anxiety and stress at bedtime. PMR is a two-step process where you first tense certain muscle groups and then relax them. As you go through the process, you should be focused on actively tensing and then relaxing, helping to relax your mind as well as your body. The procedure takes some time to learn, but after learning it, you can practice a shorter version of the exercises. When practicing PMR to help with sleep, you should plan to fall asleep before finishing all of the exercises. See the next chapter for a quick course on PMR!

Diaphragmatic breathing – Learning to breathe slowly and deeply from your belly or diaphragm is a good way to slow down. To practice belly breathing, put a hand on your stomach and take slow breaths, letting your stomach expand as you breathe in. As you breathe out, relax your chest and shoulders. Concentrate on your breathing as you do it to encourage your mind away from stressful or anxious thoughts.

Visual imagery relaxation – Practicing visual imagery means choosing peaceful, soothing thoughts to focus on which calm you and allow you to stop thinking of your to do list. Everyone’s peaceful situation is different, and you can choose to think about things that personally soothe you – a walk in the mountains, canoeing on a lake, swimming, petting your dog, etc. As long as the image doesn’t excite your mind, it should work.

You might also choose to focus on something that is very repetitious as a way of relaxing. For example, if you are a skier, you might imagine going to the slopes, zipping up your jacket, putting on your gloves and hat, tightening your boots, riding the chairlift and then the smooth and rhythmic motion of sinking your poles in and turning side to side as you ski down the mountain. Slowly going over every detail of a repetitious activity can be soothing and relaxing.

Stress management – If you learn to deal with stress more effectively through meditation or self-guided imagery, you should be able to fall asleep more easily. Try the following suggestions to help reduce your stress:

  • Change or resolve the things causing you stress when possible.
  • Accept situations you can't change.
  • Keep your mind and body as relaxed as much as possible throughout the day.
  • Give yourself enough time to do the things you need to do -including eating.
  • Don't take on too much and avoid unrealistic demands.
  • Live in the present, rather than worrying about the past or fearing the future.
  • Talk to your partner if there are problems in your relationship.
  • Have some relaxing, non-competitive activities - something you do just for pleasure, for fun.
  • Give yourself some 'quiet time' each day.
  • Practice a relaxation technique or breathing exercises regularly.

Anger management – Anger, anxiety and frustration can stand directly in the way of getting a good night’s sleep. You may feel angry or anxious when you go to bed or you may become angry and frustrated when you can’t go to sleep. Regardless of the source of the anger, recognize that it keeps your mind occupied and your body tense, two conditions which don’t encourage sleep. A few things that might help you deal with your anger or anxiety:

  • Exercise daily – it will help you release excess anger and frustration.
  • Think about the cause of your anger. If there isn’t anything you can do to resolve it, move on. If you can resolve it, make steps to do so.
  • Develop a method of releasing the anger by the end of the day, before you try to relax or go to sleep. For example, you might choose to write it down in your journal or talk to a spouse or friend about it. After you have processed the anger and let it out, try to move on

Word and imagination games – For some, playing mental games at bedtime may not be helpful at all. But others find that engaging their mind in something unimportant can be a good way to unwind and shift attention away from actively trying to fall asleep. Try playing some mental games:

  • Spell long words and sentences backwards.
  • Think of a poem or song and then count how many a’s or b’s there are in it.
  • Work your way through the alphabet thinking of a four-letter word beginning with each letter.
  • Repeat long pieces of poetry or prose.
  • Recall in great detail a favorite painting, a piece of music or place.

Self-help strategies are usually effective and aren’t addictive. Using these alternatives to over-the-counter or prescription medication are less expensive than pharmacological treatment, have fewer side effects, and can provide longer lasting relief particularly when behavioral treatments are used as well.

Consider, too, altering your sleep environment. Put a board under your mattress if it sags or try putting your bed in a different position. Make sure your bedding is clean and that you are warm enough but not too hot. If light troubles you, use thicker curtains or put a scarf or sleep mask over your eyes. If you feel more comfortable with a little light, leave the curtains open a little or use a night light.

A common cause of sleeplessness is noise. Use earplugs if it’s noise you can’t do anything about. Change your attitude toward the noise, too. People can sleep through high levels of noise. It’s not so much the level of the noise as it is how you feel about it that keeps you awake.

Use relaxation exercises to calm yourself and take your mind off of it. Take some diplomatic action to combat the noise that’s disrupting your sleep. If your family is being noisy while you’re trying to sleep, talk to them calmly about your need to sleep and ask them to please curtail the noise during bedtime hours.

Keep a radio or tape player by your bed and use it to mask other noise. Try playing a relaxation tape or CD such as nature noises that can put you in a calmer mood and make you better able to cope with distractions. You may want to look into hypnosis for your sleeping problems.

Self-hypnosis is especially helpful. This can be done online at many different sites that will allow you to download hypnotic sessions tailored to your specific problem. They are extremely relaxing and definitely worth the small investment! Research suggests that people who suffer from insomnia tend to be less confident and have lower self esteem than others. Therefore anything that you can do to increase your confidence or improve your self esteem is likely to help you sleep better.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy - Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) tries to reduce a person's misconceptions about sleep, as well as teach more positive sleep behaviors. The therapy consists of talking with a therapist (alone or with a group) to address your beliefs, assumptions and behaviors regarding sleep, and is often used in conjunction with stimulus control, sleep restriction and good sleep hygiene. Several studies have shown that CBT is an effective way of treating insomnia and that the therapy can reduce the number of long term medical issues associated with insomnia.

Cognitive behavioral therapy addresses a person’s beliefs about sleep and helps replace negative or unhelpful behaviors with positive ones. The significance of one’s thinking about sleep is often underestimated. Sleep problems which start as isolated incidents can become chronic because of mental hang-ups.

How we think about sleep can play an important role in how we deal with sleep difficulties. For this reason, an essential part of your sleep treatment involves identifying your thoughts about sleep that tend to make sleeping more difficult and replacing these thoughts with more helpful thinking.

One technique for examining your thinking is to treat your thoughts as scientific hypotheses or ideas. You may have had certain beliefs about your sleep for a long time. At this time you are being asked to consider alternative beliefs and determine which of these beliefs is best supported by the information available to you.

As you pay attention to your thinking about sleep and consider alternatives, you will probably notice two issues to address:

  • The more important it is to get a good night's sleep, the less you sleep. Believing that a poor night's sleep is a disaster only generates more anxiety and worry about your sleep. Challenge this thinking and consider alternative thoughts that reduce the importance of sleeping on the rest of your life (i.e. "It's no big deal", "I'll be a little tired and cranky tomorrow but nothing I can't handle.").
  • The more you try to control your sleep, the less you sleep. Sleep is a natural body response. Telling yourself that you must sleep and trying to force yourself to sleep only puts pressure on you and makes your sleep worse. Focusing on what you can control (sleep habits, schedule, when you are in or out of bed) and letting go of what you can not control will allow falling asleep and staying asleep to happen naturally.

Now that you've become aware of the thoughts that make your sleep worse and have considered alternative ways of thinking, the next step is to practice these new thoughts. This challenging of new thoughts replacing old thoughts will take some effort because our thoughts are typically automatic and we are not accustomed to deliberately noticing them.

Scheduling a time each day to examine the ways you think about your sleeping will be helpful in getting you to notice and challenge any maladaptive thought patterns. It is important to do this on a regular basis, as it can be easy to fall into old thought habits if you are not actively monitoring your thoughts.

Like any new skill, it is important to practice it. Keep a diary of your sleep-related thoughts and your ideas on how to think differently. Once you have become accustomed to examining your thoughts, you will find that this is an excellent skill that will prove useful for helping you to approach your sleeping difficulties differently as well as for learning a healthier approach to other life problems as well.

We strongly advocate progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) not only to combat insomnia, but to combat stress as well. Here’s how to do it.