I remember when I was a kid and well into my 30s, I slept like a hibernating bear. Twelve hours was nothing to me. At least on the weekends. During the work week, I’d get by on half of that and pretty much always felt sleep deprived. But when I slept, I slept well. I’m not sure at what point my sleep patterns changed, but now I could never sleep that much. I typically log in 7-8 hours, but very rarely is it straight-through sleep. That’s fine as long as I go back to sleep and most often I do. But then there are those nights when I just can’t seem to drop off again for a long time.
Apparently, I’m not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 8 out of 10 adults experience some type of sleep difficulty, either trouble falling or staying asleep and half of those report feeling unrested. Sleep issues are not always due to stress. What we eat and drink (caffeine soaked coffee and chocolate), what we do (staying on the computer late into the night), the condition of our bedroom (cool and dark is best), what’s going on in our bed (snoring spouse or dog) , our physical condition (pain, sleep apnea, restless legs) have a lot to do with it.
With seven out of ten adults reporting that they experience stress and anxiety daily, I think it is safe to say that stress and sleep issues are related. So if you find yourself tossing and turning or staring up at the ceiling too often, here’s some things to think about.
But first, what is stress? It’s a hard term to define because it encompasses so many different feelings. When I hear people talk about stress, it seems to always be an acknowledged response to a situation. Hear “work is really stressing me out right now” and you know there is something happening at work that is causing an emotional and physical reaction. In 1936 Hans Selye defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”.
In my view, as a student of how beliefs affect emotions, that would be true of any emotion – anger, worry, fear on the negative side, or anticipation, excitement, even joy on the positive side. Stress is no exception. And while it is usual for people who are in the throes of all these emotions to feel as if it were happening to them, my observation is this: When people talk about being stressed, there is more often than not, an element of blame. Work is doing it to me. My children are doing it to me. My financial situation is doing it to me. I don’t think stress is non-specific at all. I think it is very specifically is a word we use when we are not realizing we have responsibility for our reactions; when we are blaming what is happening on how we are feeling.
- First, pay attention to what’s going through your mind. Are you fixated on something that happened during the day? Are you replaying an event or conversation? Are you anxious about what’s on the horizon? If the answer is yes, those thoughts are keeping you awake. The middle of the night may not be the time to solve the issue fully, but you’d be surprised at how little time it takes it let go. For a quick cut to the chase, ask yourself “Who or what am I blaming for this situation right now?” and “What if I didn’t blame them?” “What would I be motivated to do?” Resolve to do whatever that is when the new day dawns. If you can’t come to a conclusion, at least let yourself know that you have been doing the very best you can to deal with the situation and allow yourself to let go for the time being.
- If you don’t relate to blame, start at the top and use The Option Method questions to get to the root of why you believe you have to be stressed (or whatever you are feeling). Again, somewhere under all those intense feelings, is a desire to do something (that we don’t think we’d do without them). For an example of how an Option Method dialogue on insomnia might work, read this excerpt from The Guru Next Door by Wendy Dolber.
- If, when you focus on what you are thinking and no particular thoughts some to mind, ask yourself,” Is there anything on my mind right now?” and see what comes up. Then ask the questions above.
- Even if our sleeplessness isn’t caused by stress (or we can’t identify it), insomnia is something people stress about in itself. Deal with whatever negative feelings you are having about not sleeping in the moment. People often get frustrated about not being able to sleep, which only adds to wakefulness. The way we respond to a situation like insomnia may very well be the way we respond to other challenging situations. We can learn a lot about ourselves by exploring our reaction to sleeplessness. Doing so will relax us so we can sleep and help us learn about our approach to challenging situations.
- A few minutes of meditation before going to sleep can also help defuse stress. You can even target the meditation with the intention of focusing on and releasing any unresolved issues of the day, giving yourself permission to elevate your desire for rest and sleep above any other concerns.
- And of course, if you can’t identify any stress under any name, consider how your physical situation may be affecting your ability to sleep. Are you too hot or too cold, in pain, lying next to a snorer? Is there too much light in the room? Is someone in the household making noise? Do whatever you can to make yourself more comfortable.
Call Wendy Dolber at 973-714-2800 about how The Option Method can help you handle stress and sleep better.