It's annoying enough to be kept awake by a music-blaring neighbor, but when it's you who is sabotaging your own opportunity for rest, it really makes a girl want to scream...and cry from exhaustion.
Stress-induced insomnia is rampant these days among 20- and 30-something women. Thanks to job and money craziness, hectic social schedules, and the pressure to be totally together, the typical chick is more tense than ever, and that means she's getting less sleep than her body needs, explains Joyce Walsleben, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine and coauthor of A Woman's Guide to Sleep.
Here, we explain how stress messes with your nocturnal schedule. Plus, we give tips to help you quiet your reeling brain and racing heart so you can get the R & R you need.
How Chronic Stress Screws Up Your System
It should be simple: You are tired and it's bedtime, so you drift away within minutes of putting head to pillow. But when you're stressed, things go haywire, and the exact opposite happens instead. Being even a little anxious can make your muscles tense, prompt your body to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and elevate your heart rate.
You can feel these effects when you're worried during the day. But at night, they have a stronger impact, overriding your ability to sleep or preventing you from staying asleep so you wake in the middle of the night, says Thomas Roth, PhD, director of the sleep center at the Henry Ford Hospital, in Detroit.
Even if you do manage to snooze, stress will make the rest you get more fitful. Plus, you'll spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep rather than in deeper slow-wave and REM sleep, which leaves you vulnerable to waking in the middle of the night, explains Barry Krakow, MD, medical director of the Maimonides Sleep Arts and Sciences, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and author of Sound Sleep, Sound Mind.
Why Women Have It Rougher
Hormonal shifts may make a woman more susceptible to anxiety during certain points in her cycle, such as during her preperiod week. But insomnia is also caused by the way so many chicks run their lives: cramming a ton of tasks and responsibilities into their schedules and not saying no to bosses, friends, and family members who ask them to take on more, says Walsleben.
When you're juggling a zillion things all day, it's almost impossible to chill out at night especially since the time you're waiting to fall asleep may be one of the only free moments during which you can contemplate your life. If you're stressed, thoughts and worries will flood your mind, triggering physiological changes incompatible with drifting off.
The Snowball Effect
If stress kept you up only once every so often, it wouldn't be that big of a deal. Unfortunately, it's the snowball effect that makes the stress-sleeplessness trap so pernicious. "It's called psychophysiologic insomnia," says Walsleben. "After worrying about how you got no sleep the night before, you get into bed early the next night, worried that it'll happen again. But this panic produces brain activity that makes it even harder to sleep, and the cycle continues for days, even weeks."
Besides leaving you tired and cranky, insomnia also decreases your immunity, makes you forgetful, and can even lower your metabolism so you pack on pounds. It's a health issue that affects your entire body, Walsleben adds.
Beating the Stress/No-Sleep Cycle
Getting a handle on this kind of insomnia means learning how to reduce your stress levels during the day and keeping yourself from wigging out at night. These anxiety reducers will help.
Unplug yourself. Always being hooked up to your cell and social- networking sites boosts anxiety because you're constantly anticipating the next call, text, or message. "Turning off your gadgets for an hour or two before you hit the sheets gives your brain time to turn off as well," explains Allen Elkin, PhD, director of the Stress Management and Counseling Center, in New York City, and author of Stress Management for Dummies.
Take a nap. It sounds counterproductive, but a 30-minute nap will lower levels of cortisol, so you'll wake up feeling less anxious. Try to nap before 2 p.m., when it's less likely to cut into your regular sleep hours.
Write a been-done list. Instead of a to-do list, jot down everything you've accomplished at the end of the day, even small tasks. Seeing the list in writing will remind you that your life is less frazzled and out of control than you think it is, and that'll help you chill.
Set a daytime worry slot. Late in the afternoon, take 20 minutes to think about only whatever it is that's making you nervous at the moment. "Worries are never as bad in the day as they are at night, so you're more likely to put things in perspective and come up with a plan of action," says Walsleben.
Sink into sleep. While you're lying there, obsessing over whether sleep will ever come, ease your nervous system with this trick: Imagine the muscles in your feet relaxing and melting into your mattress. Picture the same scenario with your calves, then your thighs, until you have worked your way up your entire body. In addition to relaxing your muscles, it's a visualization tactic that calms your brain as well.
Take advantage of being up at night. Instead of freaking out about how tired you are going to be in the morning, treat your being awake at 2 a.m. as a lucky break, giving you time to enjoy soothing activities like reading. By viewing insomnia as a positive thing, you'll have nothing to stress about, and paradoxically, you will likely have trouble keeping your eyes open much longer.
Below, little tactics that bring on the zzz's and some that backfire.
Taking a hot bath before bed. Besides being relaxing in its own right, the steamy water also raises your core body temperature, and the subsequent drop in body temperature after you leave the tub puts you in hibernation mode.
Sipping a cup of warm milk. The warmth is comforting, but it's really the milk that has a soporific effect. Milk contains tryptophan, an amino acid that is converted into serotonin a body chemical in the brain that makes you drowsy.
Playing quiet, soothing music. Folk, classical, and even lite-FM tunes that maintain a steady pitch and rhythm have a lulling effect on your system.
Exercising close to bedtime. Working out prompts the release of adrenaline and endorphins, hormones that keep you awake. Better to hit the gym at least three to four hours before you go to sleep so you give your body time to cool down and the hormone rush time to subside.
Having a drink. Alcohol can make you sleepy initially, but it will likely wake you up later as your body metabolizes the booze.
Snacking late at night. It varies depending on the type of food, but in most cases, eating will just pep you up. Even a rich, heavy snack that leaves you feeling woozy at first may cause you to wake in the middle of the night as your body digests the fat.
Source: Registered nurse Joyce Walsleben, PhD
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