Sleep has always been a little bit mysterious to me. All of that being unconscious, staying still for long periods of time, dreaming, traveling to other realms where I live as a hybrid lioness priestess in the craters of Kartune…
Ahem, so yes, in this particular realm that we’re in here and now, getting proper sleep provides many health benefits when dealing with stress and anxiety. However, it can take some effort to get to the ‘proper sleeping’ part when you’re already stressed out.
Stress and lack of sleep can turn into a vicious cycle. Stress leads to lack of sleep, which leads to being tired and less able to handle stress, which leads to more stress, and so on.
More specifically, it goes like this:
- Stress raises the level of the stress hormone cortisol, which stimulates alertness and triggers bodily stress responses like an increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Although cortisol levels normally decline in the evening due to our natural circadian rhythms that get us ready for sleep, stress interrupts this so cortisol levels stay up
- These high levels of cortisol disrupt the production of melatonin, a hormone that is released from the pineal gland that regulates sleep-wake cycles, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep
- This disruption in the sleep cycle prevents us from getting enough REM stage sleep, an important stage for restoring mental function
- Not getting enough restorative REM sleep (or sometimes barely any sleep at all) causes us to wake up feeling foggy, groggy and tired, and the lack of sleep itself increases cortisol levels again
- This exacerbates our stress levels during the day and we go back to step one: stress raises the level of cortisol, and we do it all over again
Even if you have been tired all day, the rise in cortisol levels and reduction in cycle-regulating melatonin will make you feel wired and awake at bedtime. Besides messing with your sleep cycles, constant high cortisol levels can really wreak havoc on the brain and nervous system causing anxiety, depression, irritability, chronic fatigue and brain fog, as well as a number of physical disruptions and conditions.
It takes some conscious action to put these cycles back into rhythm, so here are some ways to do it.
Follow the Sun
Ideally, try to align your bedtime with the setting sun and your wake time with the sunrise. This is the most natural rhythm there is. Unfortunately, this is also impractical for most of us, so if you live in a place where the sun is set for 4 or 12 hours, or your work time doesn’t line up with the sun times, you can just make sure you have a regular sleep and wake time.
Get some sun on your skin during the day to help reset your circadian rhythms.
Sun & Hypothalamus Hack
A cool trick to reprogram our cycles is to go outside for about ten minutes as close to sunrise and sunset as possible, ideally within half an hour of each. Being out during sunrise tells the hypothalamus (the master gland in the body that controls many important functions, including sleep cycles) that it is time to be awake. Being out during sunset sends the signal to the hypothalamus that it’s time to rest and prepare for sleep.
You have to be outside without sunglasses, not looking at your phone or behind a window of any sort. This practice can shift our master clock, making it easier to get into a routine and get some proper sleep. It’s also a beautiful example of how we are completely connected to the cycles of our planet.
You heard the flight attendant, please turn off all electronic devices. And I’m sure she also meant to say, ‘and definitely keep them out of your bedroom’. Yes, in this case the flight attendant is female.
You may think that you absolutely need to watch Friends to wind down before bed, but using electronic devices after sunset is actually making it harder for you to sleep.
Devices like laptops, smartphones and TVs emit blue light, which signals to our hypothalamus that it’s time to be awake… just like the sun does! Different colours of light have different effects on the body. Blue wavelengths boost attention and reaction times, so they are disruptive at night when we are trying to wind down for sleep.
Blue light at night suppresses the production of melatonin (remember, the hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycle), resetting our internal clock to a later schedule and making it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Blue light also delays the onset of REM sleep, and we know how that cycle turns out.
If you absolutely can not do without electronic devices after sunset, you can try Blue Blockers while you’re in front of screens. But I suggest that when you are first beginning to reset your internal clock, to have no devices for at least an hour before bed.
Another reason to ditch the devices is to reduce the electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) that you are exposed to. Electromagnetic fields are areas of energy that surround electronic devices, which also disturb sleep by disrupting body processes like melatonin production. There is also evidence that EMFs trigger a stress response in cells, indicating harm to the body at much lower levels than conventionally thought. So away with them!
It’s helpful to turn off the wifi router in your home at night.
If you need to use your phone for an alarm clock, at least put it on airplane mode and/or turn off the wifi. Or look into getting one of those cool Sunrise Alarm clocks that gradually brightens, simulating the sunlight and helping with sleep cycles!
Have a Bedtime Ritual
Taking the time to wind down before going to bed gives you a much better chance to get a good sleep. Start by giving yourself about an hour for your bedtime ritual and then adjust to the timing that works best for you.
Some Practices to Implement Into Your Bedtime Ritual
Have a Clean Bedroom
Keep it tidy and uncluttered. See your bedroom as a sacred sleep sanctuary and decorate it in a way that makes you feel relaxed and calms your mind. Salt lamps and essential oil diffusers are a nice touch.
Amber Light at Night
When the sun goes down, we tend to flip on some lights, many of which have a blue tint, triggering our body to wake up. Having amber lightbulbs in lamps ready for the evening sets the mood for relaxation and tells your body it’s time to wind down.
Epsom Salt Bath
Epsom salts are made of magnesium sulphate, which is absorbed into our skin when we add it to the bath. This gives us the benefits of magnesium, such as muscle relaxation, soothing aches and pains, balancing our mood and relieving stress. You can add some lavender and/or chamomile essential for more relaxation properties. Go to bed right after the bath to full take advantage of this calming practice.
Read a Book
Not an e-reader. A book. Reading can distract from the troubles of the day and make falling asleep easier. Fiction works well because you’re using less brain power, so it’s more relaxing. Or read something super boring! Avoid anything that could be emotionally unsettling.
Have a Cup of Chamomile
Chamomile tea can really help us wind down. It improves the mood, relieves aches and pains, eases muscle spasms and can help to improve sleep quality. Drink a cup in the bath or while reading a book and let it drain the tension.
Taking some time to just sit and focus on breathing can really calm the mind and the body, even if it’s only for ten minutes.
It’s important to stay away from anything too stimulating that will start your mind racing. Turn off the TV, don’t read emails, and stay off of social media during this time. You don’t have to do all of these bedtime rituals every night. Just choose a couple that suit you the most. Change it up and see what works best. It may end up being your favourite time of day.
Mastering sleep can take some effort. However, if we create a conscious practice of removing habits that confuse our natural inner rhythms and let the mind, body and spirit rest each evening, it can go a long way in helping us deal with stress and anxiety.
May you have the sweetest dreams!