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Too Stressed to Sleep? Here’s What Experts Suggest May Help

Studies suggest losing good slumber may take a toll on the brain and immune system


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Losing sleep through stress and anxiety? You are not tossing and turning alone.

According the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, difficulty sleeping and changes in sleeping patterns are common reactions to stress. And the sleep we are losing could take a toll on our brains, research suggests. 

"Sleep loss means mind loss," says John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules. "When you sleep poorly, your mood, memory, creativity and problem-solving capabilities [all] suffer.”

Most of us realize that when we are too tired, we struggle to focus, making it harder to learn new information – meaning that it may not make it into our long-term memory banks. Scientists also believe that when we are asleep, our brains perform key tasks in creating long-term memories.

But that’s not all. Research suggests that toxins in our brains are flushed away during our sleep. A lack of sleep might interrupt that process.

Other health effects of sleep deprivation can include weight gain, hardened brain arteries and a dampened immune system, something no sleepless person wants to hear.

Breaking the sleepless cycle

The problem: Worrying about how sleep might affect your immune system might make it even harder for a stressed-out person to fall asleep.

So, how to break the stressful cycle?

Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and board-certified sleep specialist based in Los Angeles, suggests you start with the basics – all the things known to promote healthy sleep in any circumstance. You should:

  • Stick to a regular schedule. Go to bed and wake up at about the same time every day, even on weekends.
  • Avoid lying awake in bed for hours. If you can’t sleep, get up to read a book, listen to music or fold some laundry until you feel sleepy.
  • Avoid smoking, caffeine or highly acidic foods two to three hours before bedtime.
  • Unplug from devices, including TV, computers and cellphones, for at least 30 minutes before bedtime. You will avoid blue light that can delay sleep and, perhaps just as importantly, “slow your data flow” of news and social media as you try to wind down, Breus says. For the same reasons, you should stay away from electronic devices if you get up during the night.
  • Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary. That means using the bed for sleep and sex only, keeping the temperature cool and, if needed, installing blackout shades. Some people also like sound machines that mask annoying noises.

If you still can’t get to sleep, you may need to address your stress and anxiety directly.

Breus recommends several relaxation techniques for people suffering from stress-linked insomnia. The easiest to try: deep breathing exercises. Many people, he says, find it helpful to take a series of even, slow breaths, in and out, several times a day or whenever they are feeling anxious or stressed.

Breathe your way to slumber and other techniques

Or you can try a more structured breathing exercise.

One popular method is called 4-7-8 breathing. Here’s how to do it:

In a comfortable position, with your eyes open or closed …

  • Inhale for 4 seconds
  • Hold breath for 7 seconds
  • Exhale slowly, for 8 seconds
  • Repeat several times

Breus recommends trying the method just before bedtime. “In a way, you’re mimicking the breathing patterns of sleep onset, and nudging your body and mind toward its all-important period of rest,” he wrote in a blog post at his website,

Other stress-reducing techniques that might help you sleep:

  • Guided imagery. As part of your bedtime routine, you might spend a few minutes focused on a soothing imaginary journey — such as floating on a calm ocean, rocked by gentle waves and a warm breeze.
  • Progressive relaxation. This technique involves tensing and relaxing parts of your body, one muscle group at a time. At bedtime, you might lie down and start by tensing and relaxing your feet, and then work your way gradually up to the top of your head.
  • Gratitude. Make a mental gratitude list as you lie in bed with the lights off. That could help you to replace worries with positive thoughts as you drift off to sleep. Ending your day on a grateful note may help improve deep sleep and produce more positive dreams, Breus says.

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