Target the Enemy!
When stress interrupts your sleep on a nightly basis, it sets you up for a chronic insomnia that can send you sliding down the rabbit's hole toward sleeping pills, alcohol, and chocolate cake at night and a zillion cups of coffee during the day. Here's how to step back from that precipice.
Target the enemy. "Every night a couple of hours before bed, sit down and make a list of all the issues, problems, and things you have to deal with," says Donna Arand, Ph.D., clinical director of Kettering Hospital Sleep Disorders Center in Dayton, Ohio. "Next to each item, write a solution or plan." If you're mad at your mother-in-law, for example, the solution could be to call her and talk it out.
Even if it's not something you want to do, write down your ideas for dealing with each stressor you've listed, urges Dr. Arand. Then mull the solutions over.
When you're ready for bed, put the list by the bedroom door. That way, if thoughts of your problems arise as you're trying to sleep, you can tell yourself, "I've got a plan and I'll work on it tomorrow," says Dr. Arand. The reassuring presence of your plan by the door will give it a concrete reality that will allow you to shift your mind to more peaceful things.
Put your work in perspective. A Canadian health agency that tracks health-related statistics reported recently that on-the-job stress has reached alarming levels. They point to the fact that the workplace no longer has any boundaries and that work has spread into every corner of your life. It's gotten to the point that 52 percent of employees take work home -- almost double the number who did in 1990. What's more, 69 percent of employees check their work e-mail from home, 59 percent check voice mail after hours, 30 percent accept work-related faxes at home, and 29 percent keep their cell phones on at all times.
Not surprisingly, 46 percent feel this work-related intrusion is a stressor, and 44 percent report "negative spillover" onto their families. A poll conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 52 percent of American workers said that work interfered with their responsibilities to their families. The problem, however, is not just that work is intruding into familial life, it's that it's actually interfering with the most effective buffers to workplace stress available.
A joint study of 314 workers conducted by the University of South Australia and the University of Rotterdam found that workers with higher levels of active leisurely activities, such as exercise, hobbies, and social activity, were able not only to bounce back from workplace stress better than their always-on-the-job coworkers but also sleep significantly better than others.
Money, Mobile Phones, and the Miracle Nap
Take charge of your gadgets. Although each new, more multifaceted electronic device that appears in the marketplace promises to make the logistics of our lives a snap, they may actually tie us into too many never-ending webs.
First we have to pay for them. Then we have to master how to use them. Next we have to show them off by contacting our network of business associates and friends. They will, of course, respond in kind. Being able to keep in touch with the kids is a boon to working parents. Allowing the office to track you down after hours is not. We need to keep the two things separate, save discrete times in the day to receive and answer business e-mails, and learn to screen the after 6:00 P.M. cell phone calls. That goes for the whole rest of the evening as well. It also wouldn't hurt if everyone in the family turned off their devices for a stress-free dinner. And under no circumstances should you check your e-mail right before bed.
Do with less. According to a poll by the American Psychological Association, 4 of the top 10 stressors we experience are related to money -- how we get it and how we spend it. Given that, doesn't it make sense that if we want less and are content with less -- smaller houses, fewer gadgets, and simpler forms of transportation -- our stress levels will go down?
Perhaps that applies to our career choices as well. Do you really want to work yourself to death to be the woman in charge of the world? Or will just being in charge of a small portion of it make you happy and let you sleep? A recent poll of nearly 2,000 Americans reveals that 22 percent declined a promotion or refused to seek one because they thought the job would be too stressful.
Give a nod to a nap. It's doubly unfortunate that stress makes it hard to get to sleep because, chemically speaking, the antidote to stress is sleep, says Sara Mednick, Ph.D., a Harvard-trained research scientist at the University of California at San Diego and author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life. That's because when you're asleep, your levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop and your levels of growth hormone -- cortisol's opposite number -- significantly rise.
Unfortunately, if you're getting the typical working woman's six hours of sleep (or less) a night, you're sleep deprived on a chemical level -- your cortisol's too high and your growth hormone never gets enough time on the streets to hit its stride.
There is a way to tamp down the cortisol and get a hit of growth hormone during the day, however. And that's by taking a nap.
It's true that several naps during the day, particularly after dinner, will reduce your ability to fall sleep at your usual 11:00 P.M. bedtime, but studies show that one nap of up to 90 minutes between the hours of 1:00 and 4:00 P.M. will not interfere, says Dr. Mednick. In fact, it will reenergize anyone who's not dead.
Begin orienting your body to afternoon naps with a 20-minute period of quiet relaxation that occurs at the same time every day, says Dr. Mednick. If you have a sofa in your office, all the better, but you can create a temporary nap place with a chair and an improvised ottoman. You may want to keep a pillow and an alarm clock at work, too, for nap time. Some cities even have sleeping pod franchises where you can rent a comfortable sleeping chair for 20-minute naps for less than $15.But what about your job? "If you can take a 20-minute break to run to Starbucks for coffee," says Dr. Mednick, "you can find 20 minutes for a nap." If your employer objects, send him or her to Dr. Mednick. She will be happy to show him data from NASA studies demonstrating that a 26-minute nap boosts on-the-job performance by 34 percent.
What Raises Your Stress Levels?
Recognize yourself. How do you deal with stress? Pig out on chocolate mousse? Skip meals? Refill your wineglass a couple of times after dinner? All of these classic stress responses actually make falling asleep and staying asleep more difficult. But if you realize that you're one of those who responds to stress in a way that will sabotage your sleep, plan ahead of time how you're going to handle something you just know is going to raise your stress level.
If you know the big year-end sales conference is coming up next week and you've got some pretty lofty goals to achieve, for example, get into bed an hour early every night this week, which will give your body a biochemical boost of stress-proofing growth hormone to ride into the week.
If you know you're going to see your ex when he drops off your daughter Saturday evening, take time out and meditate for 20 minutes before he's supposed to arrive.
Or if you're planning to attend a huge wedding and you know that hanging out with a few hundred people raises your stress level, find a nice quiet spot at the gathering -- outdoors under a tree, indoors in an upstairs bathroom, out in your car -- where you can take a deep breath, close your eyes for 10 minutes, and enjoy the peace of being alone.
Check out comedy central. If you like to unwind in front of the television each evening, tune in to one of the channels that offers a few laughs. Researchers at the University of California at Irvine asked 16 people to watch a funny videotape while the researchers measured various biochemicals related to stress. The result? When study participants watched the tape, their levels of stress hormones dropped significantly and levels of the antistress growth hormone rose 87 percent.
Cut yourself some slack. If you know a situation will add to your stress level, avoiding it when you're not sleeping may well be the healthiest thing you can do. One woman who worked the counter in a bakery found herself tossing and turning every night as she thought about all her stressors -- her kid, the mortgage, her husband's health, the whole nine yards.
But one morning the lack of sleep, her stressors, and the fact that she had to deal with customers niggling back and forth between caraway or sesame seeds put her right on the edge. So she swapped places with a baker in the back of the store. The baker -- not unhappy with the change at all -- waited on customers while the stressed-out counterwoman peacefully kneaded dough.
That night, the counterwoman slept well.
Plant an herb garden. Line your bedroom windowsill with lavender plants, pinch off some leaves before bed, and slip them into your pillowcase. Studies show that the effects of herbal fragrances such as lavender reduce stress levels. In one study people exposed to lavender showed an increase in the type of brain waves that suggest increased relaxation.
Take fido to bed. In one analysis researchers evaluated the heart health of 240 couples, half of whom owned a pet. Those couples with pets had significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure levels when exposed to stressors than the couples who did not have pets -- a sign that stress is less likely to be affecting their sleep!
Connect. Studies at UCLA reveal that women's friendships and relationships with their children can block stress hormones. Conducted by researcher Shelly Taylor, Ph.D., the "tend and befriend" studies, as they are called, indicate that when women are stressed, they tend to their children and seek out other women. Possibly an ancient survival mechanism that allowed women to band together to protect their children, the studies show that when women tend to their children and hang out with friends, they increase levels of a biochemical called oxytocin, which blocks cortisol, the body's chief stress chemical. The result? Low-stressed women are more likely to sleep at night than their wired male counterparts.
Forgive the past. Anger toward someone who has wronged you can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that can haunt you through the night. To prevent that effect, think about how you were hurt, your response, and how you feel right now. Then think about whether or not there's anything in the background of the person who hurt you that explains what he or she did. If there is, put yourself in their shoes -- and see if you can't forgive them. If you can, you'll sleep like a baby.
More Tips for the Hurried
Catch up. If you're always running late, sit down with a pencil and paper and see how you're actually allotting your time. Say it takes 40 minutes to get to work. Are you leaving your home on time? You may very well be able to de-stress life a bit just by being realistic. And if you can't find the time for all the activities that are important, maybe you're trying to do too much.
Get physical. Burn off a rush of stress with a 15-minute walk. Studies show that those who regularly exercise sleep better than those who don't.
Find spiritual friends. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Washington found that those who routinely hang out with others who share their religious beliefs were less likely to be affected by stress when confronted with major stressors.
Dilute the effects of stressful people. One example: If you don't get along with your father-in-law but don't want to make an issue of it, invite other in-laws at the same time you invite him. Having other people around will absorb some of the pressure you would normally feel.
Ditch the multitasking. Can't remember what you did all day or what you accomplished? Boy, that'll jack up your stress level! Unfortunately, multitasking only looks as if you're accomplishing a lot. Studies suggest that it actually impairs memory and performance.
Try doing only one thing at a time for a few days. You'll be able to remember what you've accomplished each day and -- if you've done a good job -- feel relaxed about your work at the end of the day.
Take some time to say thanks. Take 10 minutes every morning to sit down, close your eyes, and give thanks for the blessings in your life. Name each one, and hold the purpose in your thoughts. The sense of gratitude you'll experience will set a serene tone for the entire day.
Choose not to get angry. Being angry not only revs your stress motor, it makes you feel bad. So next time someone cuts into your lane on the freeway, recognize your instinctive surge of adrenaline and then decide not to let it control you. Instead, smile and say to yourself, "I'm not going to let someone like that affect how I feel." Amazingly, it works.