What to Do If You’re Too Stressed to Sleep

What to Do If You’re Too Stressed to Sleep

You’re lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. You’ve scrolled through Facebook and counted sheep,  but you just can’t sleep. The frustration of insomnia can be a sleep blocker in and of itself. The more you think about sleep, the harder it is to fall asleep. The minutes tick by and you know the productive day you imagined is slipping away. You wonder if you need a new bed or if it’s just you. But many times, it’s stress.

We live in an age where chronic stress is a growing epidemic. Access to information 24/7, social media, and uncertain economic times keep many people awake at night. However, you need sleep to manage the very stress that keeps your mind turning.

The Cycle of Stress and Sleep

Sleep deprivation and stress feed on one another. In some cases, poor sleep starts the cycle and in others, it’s stress. If you get a bad night’s sleep, the area of the brain that processes emotions become hypersensitive to anything negative like stress. Normally, the logic center of the brain keeps things in check, but it gets quiet and slows its activity when you’re running low on sleep.

The results are the same when stress starts the cycle. You’ve had a bad day at work or someone in your family is dealing with health problems. The associated stress keeps you awake long into the night.

Chronic stress causes stress hormones to flow through your body long after they should have disappeared. Your body isn’t supposed to stay in a state of heightened stress for long, but that’s exactly what happens during chronic stress. It can affect your heart rate, concentration, relationships—and yes, it prevents you from falling asleep.

Start with Healthy Sleep Habits

The success of your sleep cycle in part depends on your habits and behavior. Your brain is designed to adapt to your schedule up to a point. But before it can adapt, you have to keep a regular schedule. That means going to bed at the same time every day, even on weekends.

Lead into your bedtime with a relaxing nightly routine. Help your brain learn your schedule by performing each activity in the routine at roughly the same time and in the same order every day. It doesn’t need to be complicated. A routine that includes changing into your pajamas, brushing your teeth, and reading a book can be enough for some people. Others may need some relaxation techniques mixed in, which we will cover later.

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Be sure that your electronics aren’t part of the problem. The light from their screens can suppress sleep hormones so turn them off at least two to three hours before bed.

Finally, your bedroom has to be comfortable. Get rid of clutter, and make sure your mattress fully supports your weight and preferred sleep style. Address any medical conditions that may create unique sleep needs. For example, ADHD, anxiety, and PTSD sufferers may benefit from a weighted blanket while those with chronic joint pain may sleep better with a memory foam mattress topper.

Dive Into Stress Management Techniques

Some stress is a natural part of life. You’re never going to eliminate it completely. But you have to be able to function normally and that includes getting a solid seven to nine hours of sleep. Many of these techniques can be used at any time of day, but they’re particularly useful at bedtime.

Practice Meditation and Meditative Breathing

Meditation has been around for centuries, and scientists have only begun to identify its benefits in the last few decades. It teaches your mind to stay in the present moment. In the present moment, you aren’t reliving past mistakes or imagining stressful future events. With your mind focused on the present, the body stops the stress response. In time, this practice can strengthen the connection between the brain’s emotion and logic centers so that emotional reactions are less intense even during times of stress.

Along with meditation comes meditative breathing, which can provide some stress relief. Breathing techniques can be used while in traffic, at your desk, or in the grocery store as long as you understand the basic principles.

  • Breathe Through Your Nose: This focuses the breath and forces you to slow the inhale. If you’re having trouble concentrating, inhale through one nostril on one breath and with the other in the next.
  • Breathe Deeply: Breathe deeply from the diaphragm to fully inflate the lungs. It can help your parasympathetic nervous (or calming) system to override your stress response.
  • Extend Your Exhales: Make your exhales twice as long as your inhales. Count the exhale to take your focus away from stress.
  • Breathe Through Your Tension and Let It Go: Stress can manifest itself as muscle tension. On the exhale, consciously feel the tension leave your body. Notice the muscles that struggle to let go and target them. If you feel a lump in your throat or chest, breathe deeply and imagine the lump slowly dissolving. Don’t force the process, just let it happen.
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Start a Nightly Yoga Routine

Stress hormones and their related proteins cause inflammation throughout the body. You might notice this as swelling, soreness, or achiness. A consistent yoga practice has been shown to reduce the stress-related inflammatory proteins that flow through your blood. It can also boost your mood and enhance your energy levels. Of course, the more you do yoga, the more benefits you’ll see.

Yoga is easy to add to your bedtime routine. Child’s pose and corpse pose can be done while in bed. If you need more tension relief than that, there are several poses like legs up the wall pose and standing forward bend that are not hard to do next to your bed.

Journal Your Way Through Stress

Journaling is a classic therapy technique. It’s an opportunity to organize and clarify your thoughts before going to sleep. You can leave your worries and anxiety on the page where they’ll be waiting for you in the morning. Many people keep a journal on their nightstand to write down any last minute tasks they don’t want to forget. Whether you’re writing away your worries or making sure you don’t forget the milk, this simple technique can remove mental sleep blockers.


Stress doesn’t have to rule your life. You’ve got tools that can help calm your mind and body. Give yourself time to discover the combination of techniques that work for you. Remember, you’ll always have some stress in your life, but with good stress management and sleep habits, you’ll be able to enjoy the rest and health you deserve.

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