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  • Writer's pictureMartha Lewis

Is stress affcting your sleep: Find 10 ways to reduce stress now!

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

When I ask people what affects their sleep the most, stress is the most common answer!

So what is Stress?

The official definition of stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. But stress is also subjective. What’s stressful for one person isn't necessarily stressful for another person. So a more appropriate definition is that it’s a condition in which we perceive that the demands in our life exceed our personal resources.

For each individual, what is considered stressful can change day to day and year to year. As an example, when my son is misbehaving or upset, sometimes I feel like I can‘t handle it. Other times I’m easily able to handle and manage the situation. It depends on how much we already have on our plate and what we perceive as too much to deal with.

During the stress response, you go into the fight or flight response. Imagine if you are hiking in the Teton mountains and a bear starts chasing you. Your body is going to enter into a stress state which is very appropriate in this situation. Your body will release cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, the hormones that help us literally fight or run from that bear. When those hormones are released it increases blood flow to extremities, takes away our resources from digestion (because you don't need to digest food when you are fighting for your life), and increases blood pressure, heart rate and blood flow.

The thing is, your body doesn't know the difference between being chased by a bear in the mountains or being constantly on-the-go and stressed. If you have a fight with your spouse or you’re stuck in traffic and are angry about being late, your body is still going to release the same hormones in response to your stress, even though you don't need to actually run or fight.

The Truth About Stress

Stress does tend to have a bad rap at times but it actually has very important functions in your body. Stress is also a good thing. You want the stress response to happen when you’re being chased by a bear and also when you're about to give an important presentation. The released hormones help you focus and do your best.

But stress becomes negative when we think the situation is too much to handle. If we get stressed too much, eventually our bodies can't handle it and we become fatigued and exhausted. So we do want some stress but not too much.

It’s interesting how stress affects us in other ways. Stress can make it harder to solve problems. Case in point, when I'm running late and am rushing to get out the door, that's when I'm going to spill my son's milk on the floor, break a glass, or something else is going to happen that will make it more difficult for me to get out the door. It’s normal that this happens because when we're stressed because it activates the activity in the amygdala, which is the emotional part of our brain. It also decreases activity in the hippocampus, which is the cognitive part of the brain.

For example, if you're worried about your finances, being constantly stressed about it will keep you stuck in that state of mind and you won’t find creative ways to get unstuck and better your finances. So the more we can calm that stress response, the better we can be in all parts of our life.

Kinds of Stress

There are different kinds of stress: mental and physical.

Mental stress occurs when there are things going on in our head that we think that we can’t handle. Then there is physical stress that we are aware of such as exercise. Exercise is stressful, but it is a good stress that helps our bodies become stronger. But if your body is already releasing too much cortisol and you aren’t sleeping, then strenuous exercise can actually be harmful.

There is also physical stress that happens in our bodies that we may not be aware of, such as having inflammation. Having a parasite and eating foods your body doesn’t like causes constant low-grade inflammation all of the time that stresses your body. There is also stress from toxins that we were exposed to. Any of these things will add to your stress.

That's why it's important to look at your stress holistically - managing both the mental and physical parts.

How Does Stress Affect Our Sleep?

When you're under stress, your body releases cortisol. You need cortisol during the day to stay alert and be productive but cortisol levels should be at zero at bedtime.

However, if your stress levels are consistently high all day long, your body will have a hard time lowering cortisol levels at night. If you have any cortisol in your bloodstream, it will suppress melatonin, your sleepy hormone, which in turn will make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep.

If you are really tired and have built up “sleep pressure” during the day, you will likely be tired enough to fall asleep. But if you have cortisol still kicking around in your body, it is going to wake you up. If you tend to wake up in the middle of the night, with your thoughts racing, and feeling stressed as if in a panic, it’s likely that your body has too much cortisol.

10 ways to reduce stress

1. Yoga is one way to help you manage stress.

2. Spend time in nature

3. Exercise-it doesn’t have to be strenuous, you just have to move

4. Meditation is also a great tool because your blood pressure lowers, your heart rate lowers, and your cortisol levels lower. That is one of the reasons why I recommend meditation everyday. If you are new to it, I suggest starting during the middle of the day, even if you can only start for 2-5 minutes at a time. Even five minutes a day is going to lower your cortisol and be really beneficial.

Apps like Calm and Headspace have useful guided meditations. I started with guided meditations and now I can just sit and focus on my breath.

If you’re new to meditation, I recommend starting off in the middle of the day instead of before bed. Anything new done before bed can cause anxiety, which we don’t want because that will release cortisol.

5. Morning routine

I used to wake up when my son woke up crying. I would rush in to get him and that’s how I started my day. Talk about stressful! Waking up like that causes your cortisol levels to spike really high first thing in the morning and it's really hard to lower it after that.

Same with waking up to an alarm. Alarms mean stress, right? Ideally, you go to bed early enough that you are going to wake up naturally without an alarm clock.

I started something called the “Miracle Morning” that I learned from Hall Elrod and it has totally changed my life. Now I meditate and then walk my dog in the morning before my son wakes up.

It’s important to start your day in a peaceful and relaxing way so that you’re set up for healthy cortisol levels throughout the day. Then your cortisol will lower naturally at night so that you can get a great night's sleep!

6. Bedtime routine

A bedtime routine is also going to help you wind down at night and lower your cortisol levels. That's why I suggest a “power down hour “ where you stay away from screens for the hour before bed.

Instead, do relaxing things like listening to calming music, reading a book, or meditating.

7. Recovery breaks

An easy way to lower your cortisol levels during the day is to take recovery breaks. Every 90 minutes or so, schedule a break. Take 10-15 minutes away from your desk and do some deep breathing or stand outside in the sunshine. Of course you’ll want to go to the bathroom and get water, too. But scrolling through social media or making phone calls does not count as de-stressing!

8. Play!

In the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown, he talks about play and how important it is for creativity for our work and also for lowering stress. He defines play as doing something just for the joy of it. This has been a great reminder for me because I am guilty of choosing work over play many days.

Luckily my first business coach, Katie Wood, told me that taking time to play and have fun will help my business be successful in the long run. She reasoned with me that if you don’t ever play, you’re going to get burned out and quit because the sacrifice isn’t worth it. Thanks Katie, I had the best summer of my life since having a kid when I worked with her. I went mountain biking and hiking or did yoga every work day while also growing my business.

One day while swerving through the trees on my mountain bike, I became inspired and wrote an entire blog post in my head. Talk about play inspiring creativity!

I took her advice and started living my dream life now. If you wait until you’re “successful,” it gets harder and harder to justify making time for play. Don't wait, make sure to have fun every day now and you will be successful and happy down the road.

9. Tapping

EFT (emotional Freedom technique) or tapping is a technique that involves tapping on acupressure points on your body to help relieve physical pain and emotional stress. I don’t talk about it much (yet!) because it’s a little out there. But it’s something that has been helping me this past year and I think it’s a helpful tool.

Studies show that tapping lowers cortisol which is why it’s so helpful for anxiety as well as for sleep!

If you want to know more about tapping check out the Tapping Solution’s website.

10. Gratitude

Any time you’re feeling stressed, writing down or thinking about what you’re grateful will lift you out of that stress response and help you realize all the good things in your life. Taking the time in the morning and in the evening to be grateful will also lower your cortisol so you can sleep better at night. The 5 Minute Journal is a favorite of mine that has great prompts for being grateful and reflecting on your day.

I hope this post gives you some great ideas about how to lower your stress and cortisol levels so that you can sleep better at night. For my clients, I have more stress management tricks under my detective hat. If stress is keeping you awake at night, we can figure out how to manage it during the day so you sleep peacefully every night and wake up refreshed and full of energy every day.

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