Stress triggers the innate physiological “fight or flight” response. Muscles tighten and adrenalin is released. For prehistoric humans, this was essential. But, modern daily routines do not normally require an adrenalin release, which can inhibit sleep. As a stimulant, adrenalin affects the autonomous nervous system, and increases heart rate and respiration. Complaints of persistent nightmares and insomnia may be the first sign of PTSD to a healthcare professional. Even without PTSD, sleep can be disrupted by stress. Therefore, developing healthy strategies to combat emotional stress is important to overall wellness.
The Relationship of Exercise and Stress
Modern office environments promote a sedentary daily routine, and scheduling daily exercise can be a challenge for full-time employees. While some kinds of occupations are more stressful than others, working as an air traffic controller, coal miner, and police officer were ranked at the top by the Christian Science Monitor. Stress experienced on the job may be released by an aerobic work-out that strengthens the heart, and releases endorphins (that transmit pleasure signals in the cerebellum of the brain).
The positive result of releasing natural endorphins is a decrease in feelings of stress and anxiety. In turn, this can help in falling asleep. From strengthening immunity to decreasing the likelihood of accidents, uninterrupted sleep is important for both physical and mental well-being.
Some sleep specialists do not recommend exercising before bedtime due to its stimulating effect (according to an online NBC News article). On the other hand, the effect of exercise on sleep is very individual—so a “before bedtime” workout may not interfere with sleep in persons who seldom experience insomnia.
Listening to a Recording of Ocean Sounds
Insomnia manifests in some people as awakening late-night without the ability to fall back to sleep. In this circumstance, playing a computer game or watching television is not conducive to counteracting unwanted wakefulness. The reason is that the light viewed on the screen is disruptive to the internal “biological clock”—and sends signals to the brain that it is morning. Instead, listening to a recording of ocean sounds or restful music may aid in returning to sleep.
Visualizations and Pleasant Memories
For people who are anxious or have clinical depression, focusing purposefully on a pleasant memory or visualizing peaceful surroundings may aid in falling asleep. Creative visualization is a relaxation technique used in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Like meditation, it can aid in falling asleep by relaxing tense muscles, decreasing heart rhythm, and calming the mind.
Biofeedback and Meditation
First practiced on a widespread basis in the 1970s, biofeedback has been reported as successful in children—as well as adults—in treating sleep problems (Ann NY Acad Sci 602:97;1990). Meanwhile, transcendental meditation practitioners generated research studies suggesting its beneficial effects on insomnia. This included a published article in the Journal of Counseling and Development [64(3):212; 1985].
Taking a Hot Bath
If unable to fall asleep, taking a hot bath can be a sleep aid in some people. The hot water can relieve muscle tension—which can produce a feeling of relaxation. However, it is imperative to remember to return to bed quickly, so as not to fall asleep in the bathtub.
Sleep apnea, brain disorders, and certain medications can cause insomnia—and require medical treatment. However, relaxation techniques to relieve stress can promote sleep and be an adjunct therapy.