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Sleepless Nights? Try Stress Relief Techniques

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Tension can interfere with slumber, and sleepless nights can create even more stress. Learn about the link between anxiety and insomnia—and how to gain control.

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Activate Your Body's Relaxation Response

“We recommend planned relaxation activities to reduce stress. Watching a ballgame or movie on TV just isn’t the same as taking the time to fully relax,” says Johns Hopkins sleep expert Luis F. Buenaver, Ph.D., C.B.S.M. Try this plan:

1. Practice gentle breathing and progressive muscle relaxation every day (20 to 25 minutes) for two weeks. On a scale of 0 (“totally relaxed”) to 10 (“completely tense”), rate your level of emotional and physical stress before and after.

2. After two weeks, choose the exercise that works best for your anxiety and insomnia and keep it up every day. “With practice, your body and mind will learn to relax more quickly and deeply for fewer sleepless nights,” Buenaver says.

In a recent national survey, 44 percent of adults said stress had caused sleepless nights at least once in the previous month. All that tossing, turning and staring at the ceiling can leave you feeling tired and more stressed the next day. If you’re caught in this vicious cycle of anxiety and insomnia, there’s good news: Simple stress relief techniques can help you sleep better and feel calmer.

Understanding Anxiety and Insomnia

What’s behind the more stress, less sleep connection? “If you’re frequently triggering your stress response, your body never gets back to its baseline,” says Johns Hopkins sleep expert Luis F. Buenaver, Ph.D., C.B.S.M.

“Stress and sleepless nights are closely linked,” Buenaver says. “If you’re in pain, tend to worry, or are coping with a difficult situation in your life, you may have more stress hormones than usual circulating in your body. A poor night’s sleep adds even more. And those hormones may never be fully broken down. It’s like running an engine in fifth gear all the time.”

Stress Relief Techniques to the Rescue

“Activities that switch on the body’s natural relaxation response feel great,” Buenaver says. “And they have been proven by research to improve sleep. They help by reducing the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and by slowing your heart rate and breathing. Your body and mind calm down.”

Yoga, tai chi and meditation are helpful stress relief techniques. So are these two simple exercises that Buenaver recommends to patients who are struggling with sleepless nights.

Gentle breathing:

  • In a quiet place, sit or lie down in a comfortable position. It may help to close your eyes.
  • Breathe slowly in and out for about five minutes. As you inhale, breathe down into your belly. Focus on your breath.
  • If you’d like, repeat to yourself, “Breathing in I am calm, breathing out I am coping.”

Progressive muscle relaxation:

  • In a quiet place, sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
  • Take a few gentle breaths, in and out.
  • Begin tensing groups of muscles one at a time as you breathe. Hold the tension as you inhale, then release it as you exhale. Take a few breaths as you notice (and enjoy) how relaxed each muscle group feels.
  • Start with the muscles in your head, neck and face. Move down to your shoulders, hands and arms, back, stomach, buttocks, thighs, calves and feet.
  • Repeat for any areas that are still tense.

“As you go through this exercise, feel the presence and absence of tension so you can spot lingering tension and do something about it,” Buenaver says.

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