That looming work deadline you're not close to meeting. Your crazy mother-in-law. The election.
Stress. We all have it -- and aside from being uncomfortable during the waking hours, it could be keeping you up at night. In fact, a full 65 percent of Americans report losing sleep because of stress, according to findings from the Better Sleep Council.
"[Stress] is the single most common thing that causes people to have trouble getting to sleep," says Joe Ojile, M.D., founder and CEO of the Clayton Sleep Institute in St. Louis, Mo. and a board member of the National Sleep Foundation.
But the good news, according to one new study, is that spending time undoing the day's stress before bed can help actually you sleep better. The findings, presented at the CHEST 2012 conference earlier this week, suggest that a 10-minute stress-reduction technique can help to alleviate stress and improve sleep quality.
Researchers from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. taught 334 study participants a bedtime technique involving deep breathing and imagery, which they dubbed a "tension tamer." Sixty-five percent of the volunteers reported decreased stress after trying out the new method -- and that group also reported better sleep.
"A novel stress reduction technique, the 10-minute Tension Tamer, can reduce perceived stress levels in a majority of subjects resulting in improved sleep quality, decreased sleep latency and improved fatigue," the authors wrote in their abstract.
While the findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal (meaning we should consider them preliminary), working to cut back on stress before bed is a great way to help you sleep better, Ojile explains. And while this study focused on imagery and deep breathing, that's definitely not the only effective option.
"The act of doing it is a much more important issue than which thing is done," he says. So we asked Ojile to talk through a few other 10-minute techniques worth trying. But first it's worth noting what not to do: Skip reading work emails from bed, which will only agitate you, and keep the television in another room. "The bedroom should be completely devoid of any stimulus," he says.
Read through these suggestions, then tell us: What do you do when you're too stressed to sleep?
Before you get into bed, spend 10 minutes or so writing down what's really troubling you in a journal or on a piece of paper -- anything from work and family concerns to some issue or question that's really bugging you, Ojile says. "The reality is that writing it down in a worry journal isn't going to solve the problem," he says. But what it can do is give you a place to put down your thoughts and let them go until tomorrow.
The benefits here are twofold. First, water tends to be soothing psychologically, Ojile says, which can help ease built-up stress from the day. But it can also benefit our sleep: The act of cooling the body, like that which happens when you get out of a warm tub, makes us feel tired. Don't want the fuss of taking a bath? Sipping a cup of warm, non-caffeinated green tea can trigger that same cooling response in the body, Ojile explains.
If your mom told you to say your prayers before bed, she was on to something. No matter what you believe in, the act itself can help quiet your brain. "In order to pray or to meditate in a very effective way, you've got to let go of those things in life that are the same ones that keep you from sleeping," Ojile says. Both prayer and meditation can quiet the brain, which will ultimately keep you from tossing and turning in bed. And the act of repetition, like saying the rosary prayers in order, for instance, seems to be especially powerful, he adds.
While some might find that strenuous exercise too close to bedtime only makes sleep more elusive, taking a leisurely walk a couple of hours before turning in can actually help. "An evening walk is a really helpful to help get rid of some of those stresses and strains from the day," Ojile says. "You always feel better after a walk."
One old-fashioned technique that can trigger sleep is called progressive muscle relaxation, which Ojile describes as almost a form of meditation and yoga. Here's how it works: Start down at your feet and work your way up the body, focusing on relaxing each part, one at a time. When you get to your core, take some deep breaths. "As you get to the deep breathing, you're by nature going to be ready for sleep," he says. "You're naturally feeling more calm and relaxed."
Spending some time cuddling with a partner before bed stimulates the kind of emotions that are, by nature, calming, Ojile explains. And that means better sleep. Having sex can also help (we bet you won't say no to that assignment). "It may prevent sleep immediately," he says, "but ultimately it promotes sleep and relaxation.