Stressed? The Tools to Help You Sleep

Posted by Dr Sophie Bostock on 5th Apr 2022

Stressed? The Tools to Help You Sleep

Do you ever feel as though you’re always on, and have difficulty switching off?

Many of us fill our days to the brim with work, sport, family, friends, social media, diy, shopping, hobbies.. It’s all good stuff, but it can mean that we rarely make time to PAUSE and just be.

The problem with this ‘always on’ approach, is that our brains learn to rely on our fight or flight stress response - powered by the energising hormones adrenaline, and cortisol - to keep our energy levels high all day. This is the same evolutionary response that our ancestors used to stay alert when they were under threat from predators. We become alert, or wired, all day long.

If your stress response gets stuck in the ‘on’ position all day, it can make it very difficult to get into a deep, restorative sleep at night.

The role of relaxation

The stress response is balanced by an opposing ‘rest or digest’ or relaxation response, which promotes digestion, repair, sexual arousal and sleep.

To flip the switch from stress to relaxation, we have to convince the brain that we are safe, and in control,

To do this, we can either focus on relaxing physically or mentally. Our minds and bodies are interconnected, so relaxing our muscles will still relax our minds, and vice versa.

Relaxation is a skill - the more often you practice, the more quickly and deeply you will be able to relax. It’s a good idea to practice for a few minutes during the day, as well as part of your wind down before bed.

Box breathing

When we’re in danger, our breathing tends to either get faster, as we prepare to fight or flee from a threat, or occasionally, it might pause completely: as we freeze, while we make up our minds.

Maintaining a slow, steady breathing rate, therefore helps to signal to the brain that we’re not under threat, and helps to drive the relaxation response. There are many different breathing techniques you can try, and it’s worth experimenting with a few different exercises, until you find an approach which has a calming effect on you.

Box breathing involves breathing in for a count of 4, holding that breath for a count of 4, breathing all the way out for a count of 4, and holding for a count of 4. Set a timer for at least 5 minutes and aim to maintain this pattern.

If you’re lying down it can be helpful to keep one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Focus on making your belly and fall, rather than your chest. This means you are more likely to be using your diaphragm to pull the air all the way, deep into your lungs, which provokes the relaxation response.

Positive imagery

If you need something which takes a little more of your mental focus, I’d recommend trying some positive imagery. Close your eyes and picture an event or place that makes you feel relaxed. This might be your favourite beach, mountain, lake, forest, or an imaginary place.

Imagine that you’re the movie director of your perfect scene. Ask yourself: what you can see… what you can feel... what you can smell.. what you can touch.. ?

One of my clients pictured themselves walking through every room in their perfect home. I sometimes imagine myself on my favourite beach, catching waves at sunset.

You’re not trying to sleep - that’s important - you’re just going to enjoy visualising a happy place where you can feel calm and comfortable.

The more often you can return to this safe place in your mind, the more easily you’ll be able to relax and unwind, and eventually, it could help you to fall asleep.

Put the day to rest

If you’re plagued by a busy mind, one strategy is to get into the habit of writing down some of your inner dialogue in advance of bedtime. Put aside 10-20 minutes for this exercise, perhaps at the end of the work day, or after dinner. Ideally not right before bed since this exercise will get you thinking.

Sit down somewhere you won’t be disturbed and grab a notebook. Write a few bullet points about what has happened today.

  • What went well? How did that make you feel?
  • Has anything troubled you? Why was it difficult?
  • What could you do differently next time?

When you’ve finished reflecting on the day, think about what’s coming up tomorrow.

  • What are you looking forward to, and why?
  • What’s your number one priority?

The aim is to stop unnecessary thoughts whirring around your head. If the same thoughts pop into your head when you’ve switched out the light, you can tell yourself that they are on the page, and you don’t need to think about them any more. If any urgent thoughts do come up in bed, keep your notebook and a pencil by your bed so that you can write them down, and then let them go.