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The impact of stress on sleep quality is often underestimated, but it is one of the most common reasons for losing sleep. Anxious thoughts of work, tasks that need completing or other upcoming commitments can all enter your head at night and keep you wide awake. Knowing how to deal with night-time stress can be one of the most effective ways to ensure that your sleep quality doesn’t suffer when unexpected thoughts appear at inopportune moments.
In exactly the same way that your body needs energy to perform at its best, your mind also needs to be sufficiently fuelled to work logically and efficiently. That’s why the middle of the night isn’t the best time to be thinking complex thoughts, and it’s also why nocturnal worrying sessions are usually so counter-productive and stressful. You wouldn’t expect to win a race when you’re just about to go to sleep, so don’t expect your mind to perform the mental equivalent. Simply acknowledging this point can be enough to help you set aside your concerns for the following day.
Writing down worries or tasks in a list and promising to devote time to thinking about them during the day is a good way to soothe an over-active mind. By getting things down on paper you’re symbolically taking them out of your head for the time being, and by setting aside dedicated time to tackle them later on you know you’re not ignoring them. List-making can be an effective safeguard against unwanted thoughts popping into your mind during the night - you can safely let them drift out of your mind, knowing that they won’t be forgotten and you’ve committed to dealing with them when you’re ready.
Sometimes it is sleep itself, or at least the lack of it, that is the cause of night-time stress. The body’s natural sleep cycle is made up of five different phases, each lasting around an hour and a half, and the first of these is a light sleep from which it is easy to wake. Because of the way that the sleep cycle progresses and repeats throughout the course of the night you might find yourself gently waking up hours before you would normally be ready to get out of bed. This isn’t indicative of low sleep quality and shouldn’t cause any undue concern. However, if you’re not sleeping because of poor sleep hygiene then it’s important to begin following a consistent sleep-friendly routine that incorporates exercise, diet, relaxation and relatively-fixed bedtime and wake-up time. Sticking to a regime that considers all of these factors should make a difference to your sleep quality.
A mind that races with thoughts at night is often the result of not winding down before going to bed. If you don’t have a clear transition between your active day and the point where you try to go to sleep, it makes sense that your mind won’t be ready to slow down. Prepare for going to sleep by taking time to relax during the evening, allowing your mind to settle.
The immediate minutes after getting into bed are a good time to perform a simple muscle relaxation method that can be deeply calming for the body and mind. Starting with your feet, tense your muscles, keep them tensed for two or three seconds then relax them, focusing closely on the sensation of release. Slowly work your way up your body, tensing, holding and releasing your muscles. By the time you get to your face you will be much more relaxed than when you got into bed. Combining this technique with slow, controlled breathing can be irresistibly relaxing - just the thing to clear your mind of stress and worries, ushering you into deep sleep.
Night-time stress is a completely normal occurrence, and is something that can be successfully tackled in a number of different ways. As always though, if you have tried a number of different techniques and find that stress and anxiety are still getting the better of you at night, then you should visit a health professional for advice.