Not everyone responds to stress with insomnia. Learn more about sleep and anxiety -- and discover how to begin obtaining the rest your body needs.[via rd]
The Key to Better Sleep
Stress. Its biochemical surge tosses us into a fast-paced hyper-alertness that allows us to dodge an oncoming car, sidestep a fist, or save the data on a crashing computer. But that's in the short term. In the long term, the biochemistry of chronic stress can trigger anxiety and send us spinning toward depression.
Unfortunately, today's emphasis on a 24/7 workplace, perfect children, a plasma TV in every home, and a size 0 -- size 0! -- waist means that chronic stress is ubiquitous and anxiety a way of life. And since insomnia is a frequent companion of stress and worry, it also means that probably half the women in your town are pacing the floor at 4:00 A.M. Want some sleep? Kill the stress. Muzzle the anxiety. Here's how to do it.
Taking Stress to Bed
Turning over for the forty-seventh time that night, 38-year-old Belinda James tried to figure out how she could stretch this week's paycheck to buy food for herself and her two kids, fill up the gas tank, pay the phone bill, have her tooth filled, and pay the rent. It just wasn't going to happen. She turned over again, punched the pillow a couple of times, and tried to sleep. Instead, a picture of an unfinished report on her desk popped into her mind. If only she'd been able to finish. If only she'd been able to tally that last column of numbers. If only...
Like a lot of women trying to raise a family, hold down a job, and keep life worth living, Belinda James frequently finds herself tossing and turning at 4:00 A.M. as all of her stressors march through her head. There's the ex-husband who expects her to pick up and drop off the kids. The mother who wants her to date. The boss who wants her to increase her output by 20 percent in the next six months. The homeroom teacher who wants to "discuss" her son's behavior. And, of course, the money -- for food, phone, gas, dentist, and rent. The list goes on and on.
Unfortunately, the biochemicals her body generates throughout the day as she tries to deal with these challenges is what keeps her awake at night. "When you're under stress, you get an increase in adrenaline that causes your sympathetic nervous system to go from normal functioning into overdrive," explains Donna Arand, Ph.D., clinical director of the Kettering Hospital Sleep Disorders Center in Dayton, Ohio.
"There's a general overall arousal. Essentially, you're running in fifth gear all the time instead of second."
Not everyone responds to stress with insomnia. Heredity, childhood experiences, diet, exercise, personal relationships, and the sheer number of stressors impacting your poor beleaguered body dictate the way you react to stress. In a study conducted at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, for example, women who had a preexisting tendency toward anxiety were twice as likely to develop insomnia than those who did not. Men were even more vulnerable. Men with a preexisting tendency toward anxiety were three times more likely to develop insomnia.
"Insomnia is a part of the individual way each of us handles stress," says Dr. Arand. Some people park stress at the bedroom door. Others develop high blood pressure. Still others take it to bed -- their minds just won't turn off.
That's not to say that occasional insomnia isn't normal. "Insomnia is a normal response to occasional stress," says Dr. Arand. "If it's the night before your presentation at work or the night before your divorce, it's a natural response.
"What's not natural, she explains, is if insomnia becomes chronic. And that usually happens when you focus on the fact that you're not sleeping rather than on the stressor that actually caused the problem. You begin to think that insomnia is the problem -- and you go to bed expecting to have a problem getting to sleep or staying asleep. As a result, says Dr. Arand, we start thinking, What if it happens again tonight? And, sure enough, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Supporting the notion that you seemingly have a problem with sleep rather than stress is the fact that you feel so totally rotten the morning after a sleepless night. So you say to your friends at work, "I feel awful. I couldn't sleep a wink last night!" And they all nod their heads knowingly because -- guess what? -- they didn't sleep so well, either. So now you've gotten support in blaming the wrong problem. And instead of trying to find a solution to what's actually causing the insomnia -- your stressors -- you're trying to find ways to catch up with the sleep you missed so you don't feel so darned awful.
"Sleep becomes your overriding thought in life," says Dr. Arand. You start mainlining caffeine during the day, then popping sleeping pills at night. Those strategies may give you a temporary boost in alertness, but in the long run they only exacerbate the problem.
The really insidious thing about this whole mess, says Dr. Arand, is that once you get into this pattern, even when your stressor is eventually eliminated -- the rent gets paid, the ex-husband moves out of state, the tooth gets pulled -- you've gotten yourself into a pattern of chronic insomnia. So now your problem really isn't stress, it's things like multiple naps erasing the need to sleep at night, too many trips to Starbucks for a caffeine fix, and your expectation that you won't sleep because, of course, you have a "sleep problem."
Fortunately, once you realize what's going on, changing how you handle stress and reestablishing healthy sleep practices will bring back restorative sleep within weeks.
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