Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Stress and Insomnia

by James Porter May 03, 2011

Millions of people suffer from insomnia. Are you one of them? Maybe you're a person who has trouble falling asleep. You feel tired at bedtime, but for some reason, the minute you turn out the light, you suddenly find yourself lying there, wide awake. Or maybe you're a person who has trouble staying asleep. You fall asleep easily, but two to four hours later, you wake up like a shot in the middle of the night and spend the next few hours just staring at your clock. Or maybe you're a person who wakes up too early or who just doesn't feel rested after a full night's sleep and you don't know why.

For some people, insomnia is transient: It comes and goes, but never lasts more than a couple of nights, or a couple of weeks. If your insomnia is transient, chances are it is stress-related. And that's the type of insomnia we'll be talking about in this blog. For others, insomnia is chronic and related to a medical condition like depression, arthritis, sleep apnea, back pain or some other physical aliment like restless leg syndrome. This form of insomnia can last for months, or even years. If you fall into this second category, your insomnia can be successfully treated too, but not without help from a doctor.

Couple with Stress and InsomniaMost experts agree that you need about 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Unfortunately the average American gets just barely over six. So we are a society of chronically sleep-deprived human beings. Still, the number of hours you sleep every night doesn't always indicate whether you are suffering from insomnia.

The true test of insomnia is how well you function the next day, whether that's on four hours of sleep or nine. Do you wake up in the morning feeling refreshed and ready to go? Or, do you need a jump-start from your favorite caffeinated beverage? Do you plow through your day with little or no afternoon lulls? Or do you start to fall asleep right around 3PM every afternoon?

If you need a cup of Java in the morning and another for your afternoon lull, then these are tell-tale signs that you are not getting enough sleep. But if you do FINE during the day - and don't need a cup of coffee or a nap to get you through it - even if you were up half the night trying to sleep -you may NOT have insomnia.

Often times, that's big news to people who may think they have insomnia. Even if you lie awake from 10 PM till 2AM every night trying to fall asleep and then doze off from 2-7AM - as long as you function fine the next day (without the aforementioned pick-me-ups) then you are probably NOT suffering from insomnia.

However, if you follow that exact same schedule (of 4-5 hours of sleep) and drag yourself all the way through the next day dependent on your coffee, (and falling asleep at your desk) then you probably ARE suffering from insomnia. (BTW, if you get 9 hours of sleep and are dragging through the next day, you too may be suffering from insomnia.) So it really is all about how well you function the next day.

One of the major causes of insomnia is stress. It's estimated that up to 50% of all insomnia is the result of stress.

Stress can affect your sleep in many ways. Sometimes it's the result of tension: You're just so wound-up at the end of the day that when it's time to sleep you can't unwind. You're too tense. Or sometimes it's the result of worry: Maybe you're one of those people who wakes up in the middle of the night and can't get your mind off your problems. Your worries keep you awake. And sometimes it comes in the form of anxiety: We've all felt that ache in the gut that starts on Sunday afternoon. For anxiety sufferers this ache can sometimes last the whole week long.

Sometimes our insomnia comes as the result of frustration, over not being able to go back to sleep. That's when we start losing sleep over losing sleep. This is known as a secondary stress reaction. Here's how it works: Let's say a loud noise wakes you up in the middle of the night. (That's the primary reaction.) You lie there for a while trying to go back to sleep. And if you lie there long enough, you may start to worry about NOT going back to sleep, or how well you'll function the next day, and that's when you start to feel frustrated.

Sometimes, the situation escalates even further. Maybe the next night, you're so tired when you get home from work that you fall asleep on the sofa watching TV. By the time you get into bed, you're wide awake. You start to worry about NOT falling asleep again or how poorly you're going to function the next day and this makes you even more wired.

If you start to worry on the third night, your negative conditioning may have already taken hold: Your bedroom basically triggers your worry and you become conditioned feel awake there. An easy way of proving whether this has taken place would be if you have NO difficulty falling asleep on the couch, or in a chair, but you DO have trouble falling asleep in your own bed. This tells you that a SECONDARY STRESS REACTION is the cause of your insomnia.

What can you do about Secondary Stress and Insomnia?

Here are four things you can do to retrain yourself to fall asleep more easily.

  1. When you can't sleep for more than twenty minutes. Get out of bed, leave the room and do something else until you're tired. Don't reinforce the idea that your bedroom is a source of frustration and stress by staying in bed over twenty minutes trying to fall asleep.

  2. Don't worry about one night of lost sleep. Relax in the knowledge that your loss of sleep one night should probably make it easier to fall asleep the next night. And even if you have two bad nights in a row, chances are you will sleep better on the third. Changing your thinking about this is called cognitive restructuring.

  3. Even if you are up all night, your adrenalin will kick in the next day. We all get excited about our first day on a new job, travel plans and giving presentations. That adrenalin rush (which accompanies all these activities) will undoubtedly also help you survive the day.

  4. Take a hot bath just before bed. This will help relax tense muscles and studies show that a hot bath can actually improve sleeping times significantly.

Here are four more suggestions for lowering your stress levels before you hit the sack.

  1. Skip the eleven o'clock news. Watching the news is stressful, especially late at night. Images of crime and accidents and troubling stories about the economy and skyrocketing prices are not what you need to be seeing just before turning out the light.

  2. Establish a calming bedtime ritual. Read an inspirational book, take a hot bath, meditate, or listen to some relaxing music.

  3. Create a comfortable sleeping environment. Make sure your bed is comfortable, your sheets are clean, and your pillow is non-allergenic. Make sure the room is quiet, dark, the right temperature and if this works for you, consider putting the clock out of sight. (The alarm will wake you when it's time to get up.)

  4. Establish a worry time well before bedtime. If you tend to wake up worrying in the middle of the night, set aside at least 15 minutes every day to write your worries down. Whether you call this journaling or just brainstorming, spend some time releasing your worries and chances are you'll sleep better as a result.

There's lots more you can do about insomnia. If you are suffering from insomnia check out our line of insomnia products which includes Overcoming Stress Related Insomnia, Insomnia Kit, and Rest and Relax.

James Porter
James Porter