Everyone knows that it's hard to sleep when you're under a lot of stress. Unfortunately, there's no way to grow accustomed to sleeping with stress, so the solution is to reduce the amount of stress in your life.
If you moved into a new neighborhood only to discover that it was plagued by smelly smoke from a nearby factory, you would likely be annoyed or angry at first. But after several weeks, you probably wouldn't notice it as much. You would become conditioned to the smell despite the fact that it may not be terribly healthy for you.
A similar phenomenon can occur when we experience stress on an ongoing basis. We may be so bombarded with daily stress -- in the form of hurried schedules, family commitments, traffic jams and the like -- that we become accustomed to it. We may not even realize how stressed we are until we're faced with a breakdown or an emergency -- a "last straw." But such constant exposure to stress can make it difficult to get needed sleep and can compromise our overall health.
It's important to dispel the myth that you can avoid stress. If you breathe, you are going to encounter life situations that bring stress. Since you can't avoid it, the best option is to learn how to manage it. One key to managing stress is assessing what you have control over and what you don't. For instance, if your boss has set an unrealistic deadline for a project, you may have little or no control over changing that. But you do have control over how you respond to that deadline.
And your response to a given situation is what you want to focus on as you seek to manage stress. You can choose to do certain things and not others. This ability to choose puts you in control and gives you the ability to make the situation work for you.
Professional therapists who specialize in stress reduction will tell you that your body is the best guide to determining when you are feeling stressed. If you pay attention to how you feel both physically and emotionally, you can often intervene before stress begins to interfere with sleep.
What does stress management during the day have to do with sleeping well at night? Plenty. Have you ever had the unpleasant experience of crawling into bed exhausted, wanting to put a terrible day behind you, and spending the next few hours tossing and turning as you go over every detail of your day? That is stress at work on your mind. All of those emotions and thoughts throughout the day that were not dealt with at the time can work their way to the surface in the quiet of night.
In addition, the more you dwell on the upsetting events, the greater the effect on your body. When it senses stress, the brain sends a message to the body to release hormones that heighten alertness and prepare it for action. This is known as the fight-or-flight response. It's a beneficial reaction if you need to fight off a dog that threatens you on your walk or jump out of the way of a speeding vehicle.
But when the stress is mental and there is no physical response necessary, that heightened state of alertness can keep you from relaxing enough to sleep. By learning to deal with stressors in your life more immediately during the day, you are less likely to be kept awake by them at night.
Just as you can control the stress in your life, you can also control when you nap. Learn how napping may affect your nighttime sleep on the next page.