Ausnew Home Care | How to break the 'stress and sleeplessness' cycle

How to break the 'stress and sleeplessness' cycle when you have stress-related insomnia

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Struggling to get some shut-eye when you turn in for the night? Waking at 4:00am with swirling thoughts and unable to drift back off to sleep?

Many Australians have battled insomnia and other sleep problems since the COVID pandemic began, and experts say those issues can be exacerbated by stress.

"There's a palpable sense of unrest and uncertainty in the community, and some people have real financial stress or other stresses and that leads to sleep being more disturbed and anxious," says David Cunnington, Melbourne-based sleep physician and the co-director of a sleep centre.

People with diagnosed anxiety disorders, as well as perfectionists or "people who expect more of themselves, [such as] high-achievers, or super-mums" may also be more likely to struggle with insomnia, he adds.

Here's what you need to know if you're keen to break the stress-sleeplessness cycle.

It's not only about getting to sleep

There's a common misconception that insomnia only means having a hard time drifting off, says Hailey Meaklim, a Melbourne-based psychologist at a sleep centre and researcher.

In reality, stress-related insomnia can also mean struggling to stay asleep, or waking early and not being able to get back to sleep.

"People with a lot of stress in the background, they may be able to fall asleep but their sleep is a lot lighter and they may come to the surface easier," Ms Meaklim says.

So, if you have no trouble dozing off but tend to wake in the early hours and overthink your worries, stress might be the culprit.

It takes more than just good habits

You might have read that good sleep is all about eliminating bad habits around bedtime; things like scrolling your devices in bed or eating a big meal late at night.

But Dr Cunnington says those regular sleep hygiene tips aren't always enough to combat stress-related sleep issues.

When it comes to stress-related insomnia, "it's about being kind to yourself during the day … we need some rest, we need some downtime, we need some time to put energy back in the tank," he says.

"And how we do that can be more formal, for example, mindfulness-based meditation," Dr Cunnington says.

"But a lot of it can be just giving yourself permission to put your feet up … [or] stopping to smell the roses throughout the day."

Waiting until you start yawning can help

People with insomnia often fixate on setting a particular bedtime, but that can backfire.

"Sometimes when we are stressed we may not be super sleepy at our normal bedtime," Ms Meaklim says.

"So it's about tuning into this idea of, are you feeling sleepy when you're going to bed?"

She recommends not hitting the hay until you notice signs your body is ready for sleep — for example when you start yawning.

Woman pictured from head down in pink light on bed
"Sometimes when we are stressed we may not be super sleepy at our normal bedtime," Ms Meaklim says.(Pexels: CottonBro)

Relaxation and 'stimulus control'

Once you're lying in bed, progressive muscle relaxation — tensing and releasing the different muscle groups in the body — can help get you relaxed and off to sleep.

But ideally, you'd only need to use progressive muscle relaxation once in a while.

If your sleep problems are stretching into the weeks, lying in bed for a long time might only exacerbate your insomnia.

In that case, it's time to do what sleep experts call stimulus control: "Where we make sure the bed is just for sleep," Ms Meaklim says.

Rather than lying in bed willing for sleep to come, she says, "Go do something else and take your mind off things".

She recommends doing a passive relaxation activity such as reading a book in the lounge room with dim lighting until your body's "feeling sleepy and ready to return to the bedroom".

Set up a book and blanket on the couch during the day, so it's ready to go if you can't sleep at night, she adds.

Man with insomnia lying on the bed
For most people, stress-related insomnia will settle down once the stressful period passes.(Adobe Stock: Amenic181)

Give yourself a break and try CBT

It can help to take the pressure off yourself by "having some acceptance and recognising that it is quite normal in times of stress to have trouble sleeping," Ms Meaklim says.

"For three-quarters of people that stress will settle down once the stressful period has passed."

Ms Meaklim recommends focusing on what you can control to move through the stress like eating healthily and exercising, and hopefully, it will pass.

If your stress-and-insomnia pattern just won't lift, check in with your GP.

Ms Meaklim also recommends seeking cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia (CBTi).

This Way Up is a free online program run as a joint initiative by the University of NSW and St Vincent's Hospital Sydney. Your GP can also start a Mental Health Care Plan, which can subsidise visits to a psychologist.

CBTi can help you learn strategies to manage your stress; from "constructive worry" (where you write everything down during the day that you think might come up during the night) to getting your sleep routine in check, Ms Meaklim says.

It's all about taming "that 3:00am 'night brain', which tends to worry a lot more," as she puts it.

Source: ABC

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