Sleep and Stress

By Susan Musikanth, psychologist

To sleep well is to feel well and vice versa. So, for peak performance and good health it is most important to sleep well. To this end, the practice of sleep hygiene is essential - think of this as the routine you go through before getting into bed.

In an ideal world we would regularly sleep for between seven and nine hours per night, starting before midnight and wake up refreshed having replenished body and mind. We would thus feel strong and motivated to perform optimally both physically and emotionally. To achieve this, we would be balancing our stress by deep muscle relaxation; regular exercise; and a healthy diet.

The reality, though, is that there are several physical and emotional factors such as: health challenges; anxiety and depression - as well as external life events such as; sleep deprivation that comes with a small baby; caring for those close with physical or emotional challenges (elderly parents or ill children); stressors at work and/or marital difficulties which could be impacting on healthy sleep patterns. So despite life’s big and small challenges and stressors, what do we recommend for sleep hygiene and thus healthy sleep?

  • Practice deep muscle relaxation
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Work out a routine before bed that you stick to, i.e. the time that you go to bed, the relaxing things you do – have a warm bath, listen to some gentle music, read for a while.
  • Make sure that the room you sleep in is peaceful; the colours are soothing and it is dark when you switch off the lights; it is quiet.
You might, however, say, ‘Yes, but I still can’t sleep because…’:

‘My small baby or toddler is waking at night and disturbing my sleep.’

There are a number of good books for you to read to help with baby and toddler sleep disturbances, like ‘Sleep Sense’. You could also ask your partner, your mother (or, if finance allows, a night shift employee) to share the load so that you can function better in the daytime.

‘I am not able to assert myself and thus cannot resolve conflicts at work.’

A good course on assertiveness training and/or conflict resolution could well help with sleep disturbances.

‘We are experiencing marital difficulties that are keeping me/us up at night.’

It’s not a good idea to discuss these into the early hours of the morning. Try to set aside time to talk at an earlier hour. If this is not working and giving you sleepless nights it would be advisable to seek the help of a couple’s counsellor, such as a psychologist experienced in working with stress and with couples.

Remember also that some of the remedies that you are using for ‘better’ sleep such as; excessive alcohol or recreational drugs or long-term use of potentially habit-forming prescription drugs, could actually be making your sleep problems worse. If you are struggling with these substances, seek the help of a drug counsellor or psychiatrist who is an expert in this area.

In summary you will sleep well and feel well if you:

S - Practice general stress management techniques
L - Learn deep muscle relaxation
E - Exercise regularly
E - Eat a healthy diet cutting down on caffeine, especially at night
P - Enjoy peak performance and good health results from good sleep hygiene