Welcome to Day 13 of HuffPost Healthy Living's 14-Day Stress-Less Challenge! In honor of National Stress Awareness Month, our goal is to use these two weeks to focus on becoming less stressed and more calm. Today's expert is Chris Winter, M.D., medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center, who will be suggesting strategies for de-stressing before bed. Read through today's challenge, then tell us -- either in the comments, on Facebook or @HealthyLiving -- how it's going. Just joining us? Catch up on what you've missed here and sign up to receive future newsletters for the rest of the challenge here.
We know that quality sleep at night can help build a strong foundation for dealing with stress during the day -- skimping on shuteye can make us more emotional and reactive. But sometimes stress keeps us from sleeping -- the day's stressors can seep late into the evening, keeping us awake long after we'd like to be (and not being able to sleep can, in turn, become a stressor all of its own).
When we're stressed out, the sympathetic nervous system is in control of the body, which means we're hyper-vigilant to any threats. And that's not exactly conducive to sleep, during which the more relaxing parasympathetic nervous system takes over. To some extent, this response is protective: If there were a fire, for instance, you wouldn't want to doze off to sleep in the midst of the blaze, Winter says. The problem is when today's chronic stressors keep your brain churning way past bedtime.
"'I can’t shut my mind off' is one of the most common phrases I hear from the patients that come to my sleep clinic," Winter says. "These individuals are desperate to slide into their bed with a blank slate. Achieving that state takes some work, but here’s what you need to do."
1. Set a routine -- and stick to it. "Step one for an easy sleep transition is to establish a set pattern of bedtime activities. This routine is essential. It is amazing to me how many parents will have set patterns for their children (e.g. bath, pajamas, three picture books, a quick back scratch and then lights out/parents exit), but none for themselves," Winter says. "I often explain the bedtime ritual in terms of a professional basketball player shooting a free throw. That player will always approach the shot in the exact same way. Step to the line, right foot first … three quick dribbles, spot the hoop, one deep breath … shoot. By establishing a pattern and repeating it over and over during practices and games, their bodies understand exactly what to do when the time comes. For adults going the sleep, this should be no different."
2. Put it on paper. Can't stop your mind from racing at night? Pick up a pencil and paper and write down all of your concerns and anxieties on a physical list in the evening, Winter suggests. "The timing of this exercise should end no less than one hour prior to bed. After that time, any concerns that pop up need to be shelved until the next day," Winter says. "I encourage a mantra like, 'I will deal with this in the morning, not now.' To be repeated when these thoughts arise. It is important to establish a boundary for these types of thoughts."
3. Set yourself up for success. Too-bright lights in your bedroom can send a signal to your brain that it's time to wake up. Keep the lighting dim and incorporate other sleep-promoting activities into your routine, such as sipping on a cup of Chamomile tea, reading a book (just not a page turner that'll keep you up all night), meditation or stretching, Winter suggests. For more tips on setting up your bedroom for better sleep, click here.
Stress-Less Fact Of The Day: Sniff some citrus -- one study found that people who smelled orange oil for five minutes before a test experienced less stress.