By Jenny Everett
It’s the stuff of nightmares: you’re so stressed that you can’t sleep, which leaves you even more tense the next day. Annnnd… repeat. These genius tricks will help you end the madness – for good.
You know who’s chasing more women than Leonardo DiCaprio and Gerard Butler combined? Nope, not John Mayer. The Stress Monster. Over 43 percent of women admit to being more stressed today than they were five years ago. It’s a 24/7 terror, messing with your day-to-day – think chocolate binges, raging breakouts, soaring blood pressure – and, it turns out, your sleep every night. We’re all too familiar with the racing thoughts that come with stress – and how they keep you awake at night. “By bedtime, you might have 150 life events – some agonising, some annoying – swimming around in your head, which is why it can take up to an hour to nod off, even if you’re exhausted,” says professor of psychiatry and behavioural
sciences, Edward Suarez.
Insult, meet injury: research shows one of the surest ways to court mental strain is by failing to clock enough shut-eye. Put simply, daytime mayhem equals bedtime bedlam. And bedtime bedlam equals more daytime mayhem, which equals more bedtime… Ugh!!
Vicious cycle, part 1
In a perfect world, your dozing hours look something like this: as you kill the lights, receptors in your eyes signal your body to prep for the sandman. Your brain releases the snooze-inducing hormone melatonin, slows your heart rate, reduces your body temp and puts a stop order on stimulating stress hormones like cortisol. After you fall asleep, you oscillate between light and deep slumber every 60 to 90 minutes – it’s in the latter stage that your cells may fight off illness and recover from injury. But, if you had a hectic day, stress can trigger your brain to pump out excess cortisol, which may hurt your ability to power down, says sleep expert Dr Natalie Dautovich.
That means tossing and turning and a racing mind: What am I going to do about my debt? Is my relationship on the rocks? It also means you won’t reach the deeper, restorative phases of sleep. Come morning, you feel like a vengeful member of The Walking Dead.
Vicious cycle, part 2
When you’re totally spent, even routine tasks can seem Herculean – and nothing causes more stress than feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Or harping on how swamped you feel: one study found that people who analyse or bemoan their stress have higher rates of long-term insomnia. Sadly, this is especially true for women. Suarez’s research has shown that sleep-deprived females experience significantly more stress, anxiety and anger than overtired guys. “When men lose sleep, their testosterone can help limit the effect of stress hormones,” he explains. Women don’t pump out enough T to counteract that free-flowing cortisol. Now, trying to rally the day after one crappy night’s rest is annoying. But when sleeplessness piles up, things can get utterly unhealthy. Inadequate shut-eye suppresses the immune system, upping your odds for infections. It’s also been linked to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and mood disorders. In addition, research suggests that people who take longer than 30 minutes to nod off, or who wrestle with insomnia, are 10 times likelier to suffer from clinical depression.
The solution, of course, is to snooze more – at least seven uninterrupted hours per night. Research suggests the average woman clocks just over six and a half. But it’s not as simple as tacking on that extra 19 minutes, because quality is as important as quantity. You need to tweak your habits to reduce stress, keep your sleepwake clock humming and calm your mind before bed. In a study, women who underwent hypnosis before snoozing got up to 80 percent more deep sleep than those who weren’t treated.
For a similar effect at home, try this bedtime exercise from clinical hypnotherapist Dr John McGrail: sit in a relaxed pose, arms on thighs, palms down. Raise your index finger and imagine it becoming lighter as it rises. Lower it as you silently count down from five. When you reach zero, think “deep sleep” and let your finger relax.
See the light
Within five minutes of waking, try to expose yourself to up to 30 minutes of sunlight to give your brain the “It’s morning!” signal, recommends sleep expert Dr Clete Kushida. Then continue to spend time in sunny spaces: a recent study found office workers who scored natural light during the day got an average of 46 more minutes of sleep per night than daylight-deprived colleagues.
Exercise in the morning
Not only can early-bird workouts squash cortisol levels for up to 12 hours, but new research shows that people who do 30 minutes of moderate cardio in the morning fall asleep quicker, snooze for longer and spend up to 75 percent more time in deep sleep than those who sweat later in the day.
Or get some ohms
Yoga also works, at any hour. The practice is brilliant for zapping stress and studies show that dedicated yogis have better overall sleep quality, says sleep expert Dr Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, who specialises in the effects of yoga on the body.
Save carbs for dinner
The insulin spike you get from eating fare such as brown rice, sweet potatoes or pasta may help you fall asleep faster, according to research published in the journal Cell. Aim for around 15 to 20g at your evening meal, about the amount in half a cup of quinoa or wholegrain spaghetti.
US research shows that the light from computer, tablet and cellphone screens suppresses melatonin. If you must watch The Good Wife in bed, set your gadget’s brightness to the lowest level.
Those struggling to catch sufficient Zs might want to crank up the tunes. Well, sort of. Studies suggest that listening to soothing music can help you relax. To set the stage for sleep, try songs with a continuous rhythm of about 60 beats per minute (such as “Weightless” by Marconi Union), which sync up with your resting heart rate, according to sound therapist Lyz Cooper.
To keep from lying awake itemising all your worries, grab a pen and paper a few hours before bed each night and jot down your to-dos or qualms. “When you address what’s bothering you, you’re actually mentally checking it off a list,” says Kushida.
Strap on a monitor
Sleep trackers use motion sensors to measure even your most subtle wake-ups throughout the night, plus how long and how well you snooze – all info you can use to get better subsequent shut-eye. Try out the super-affordable Sleep Cycle app (around R22), which works with smartphone technology to analyse your every dozing moment, then wakes you during your lightest sleep stage.