Written by: Juliann Scholl
Updated March 26, 2021
If stress has ever kept you tossing and turning at night, you'll agree that stress and sleep problems seem to go together.
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (1), causing an increased heart rate and high blood pressure that keep you alert (2) instead of letting you sleep. Even when you do manage to fall asleep, this sleep may be of poorer quality and you may wake up more frequently throughout the night. Since poor sleep can increase symptoms of stress (3), these sleepless nights can turn into a vicious cycle.
How to Fall Asleep Faster When You're Stressed
Learning new ways to manage your stress at night may improve your sleep. In turn, you'll be better-equipped to handle whatever life throws at you.
Use Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques (4) can help lower your blood pressure, slow your breathing, and make you feel calmer. To help prepare for sleep, you can choose from a variety of coping methods that aim to elicit a relaxation response. Useful techniques include mindfulness meditation, guided imagery, hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing, as well as techniques that incorporate a physical component such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong (5).
Manage Screen Time Wisely
Smartphones, tablets, televisions, and computer screens emit blue light that can keep you awake at night (6) by lowering levels of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy. As part of your wind-down routine, sleep experts recommend avoiding electronic devices (7) in the lead-up to bedtime. Wearing special glasses that block blue light (8) may reduce the impact of screen time on your sleep-wake cycle, but if you can, go one step further and make your bedroom a screen-free zone.
Drink a Warm Glass of Milk
Many people find that a soothing cup of milk or herbal tea (9) is just the thing to help them nod off at night, although the research isn't clear on why milk appears to promote sleep (10). To improve sleep quality, try to cut down on caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, especially in the evenings. If you frequently find yourself waking up to go to the washroom, you may also choose to drink less fluids (11) overall before bed.
Avoid Heavy Meals Before Bed
A recent study found that eating within three hours of bedtime (12) may lead to more nighttime awakenings. Eating a heavy meal right before lying down can also cause heartburn (13), with accompanying discomfort that may make it even more difficult to sleep. If you suffer from heartburn, try to avoid fried, spicy, or acidic foods close to bedtime. For those who have trouble sleeping through the night on an empty stomach, the best option is to enjoy a small, nutritious bedtime snack (14).
Take a Hot Shower
Incorporating a hot shower or a warm bath (15) into your bedtime routine triggers a natural cooldown process afterwards. This drop in temperature (16) mimics the natural fluctuations of the sleep-wake cycle and may decrease the time it takes you to fall asleep.
Exercise is an important stress-reliever, and regular exercise can help improve sleep. That said, some people find that exercising too close to bedtime (17) can interfere with falling asleep. To allow time for your core body temperature to return to levels that are favorable for sleep, try to wrap up intense exercise sessions at least 90 minutes before bedtime (18).
Certain scents such as lavender (19) and peppermint (20) show promise for their ability to reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality. To ward off stress before bedtime, try aromatherapy with essential oils or give yourself a mini foot massage with lavender cream (21).
Write Down Your Thoughts in a Journal
Many people find that journaling about their worries helps them manage stress. By scheduling a set time every day to write down what's on your mind, you might be able to prevent the racing thoughts that bother you while trying to fall asleep.
Listen to Music or Nature Sounds
If traffic or noisy neighbors are making it impossible to sleep, consider masking the sound with earplugs or a white noise machine. One study found that nature sounds (22) provide an especially relaxing soundscape, but you can experiment with different sleep sounds to see what works for you.
Create a Relaxing Bedroom Environment
The frustration of not being able to sleep can cause you to develop stressful associations with your bed. Certain sleep hygiene habits can help counteract these feelings and reinforce the idea that bed is for sleeping:
- Reserve the bed for sleep and sex only, and keep work out of the bedroom.
- Keep the bedroom cool and quiet.
- Develop a bedroom routine and stick with it every day.
- Turn off all bright lights, including alarm clocks and phone notifications.
- Avoid looking at the clock when you're trying to fall asleep or if you wake up in the middle of the night.
- Start winding down an hour before bedtime by dimming lights and switching to quiet activities.
- Set your alarm for the same time every morning, even on weekends.
- Get out of bed if you can't sleep after half an hour and do a calming activity in another room until you feel sleepy.
In many cases, these home remedies can help you sleep better when stressed. If sleep is still elusive, consult a medical professional. They may be able to provide you with further therapies for insomnia, or check for any underlying sleep disorders.
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