Stress, Sleep and Relaxation Techniques

In 1991, a national poll found that one-third of adults complained of difficulty sleeping. The same poll conducted in 1995 found that half of adults were experiencing sleep difficulties. In 2002, the Sleep in America poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that almost 60% of adults complain of insomnia two or more nights per week.

Why are these numbers increasing? Although there are a number of reasons, stress is probably the primary cause of the significant increase in sleep problems in our society.

Stress and sleep
Stress and insomnia are inextricably linked: stress is one of the most powerful disrupters of sleep, and insomnia is one of the first signs of stress. Virtually everyone has experienced stress-induced nights of insomnia or periods of insomnia from traumatic events, losses or stressors at home or work. Even positive stressors such as marriage or other exciting events can disrupt sleep. Stressful life events are the most common precipitators of insomnia in chronic insomniacs and most insomniacs have a harder time sleeping on stressful days.

Negative, anxiety-producing thoughts about sleep such as "I will never fall asleep unless I take a sleeping pill" or "I'm going to have a miserable day if I don't sleep well tonight" play a primary role in exacerbating insomnia by triggering negative emotions such as fear, anger or anxiety. These emotions cause stress hormones to be secreted, brain waves to speed up and the sympathetic nervous system to become more active. (See the Truestar Stress Page for more information on the physiology of stress). Because these physiological changes are incompatible with sleep, stressful thoughts about sleep play a primary role in exacerbating insomnia.

How does stress disrupt sleep?
Studies have revealed that stress disrupts sleep in two ways. First, increased daytime stress reduces deep sleep, which results in lighter, more restless sleep. Secondly, stress responses that occur during the day over-activate arousal systems in the brain and raise stress hormone levels in the body, which can result in elevated nocturnal stress hormones. In other words, when you are stressed during the day, your stress hormones are not just elevated during the day; they are also elevated while you sleep, which is incompatible with sound, deep sleep.

Meditate for better sleep
Because of the long-standing recognition that stress disrupts sleep, a significant amount of research has focused on the use of meditation-based relaxation techniques for improving sleep. Dozens of scientific studies have shown that meditation, biofeedback, muscle relaxation and breathing techniques are effective in the treatment of insomnia. These techniques all elicit a common underlying physiological response called the relaxation response (RR). The RR, which includes slower brain waves, decreased respiration rate, muscle tension, etc., is the brain's counterbalancing mechanism to the stress response. Although the RR occurs automatically in response to physical stressors that involve energy expenditure through fighting or fleeing, we must consciously evoke the RR in response to today's psychological stressors that don't involve energy expenditure.

The RR improves sleep in two ways. First, when it is practiced during the day, it counters daily stress responses, thereby reducing the likelihood that stress hormones will be elevated at night. Secondly, when practiced at bedtime or after an awakening, the RR helps to turn off negative sleep thoughts, lower arousal in the brain and relax the body.

The RR also improves sleep because it helps lower brain arousal by producing a brain wave pattern that is similar to Stage 1 sleep—the transition state between waking and sleeping. By practicing the RR at bedtime or after a nighttime awakening, it is easier to enter Stage 1 sleep and ultimately the other stages of sleep (Stage 2, deep sleep and dream sleep).

Although we can't always change the stress in our environment, we can use the RR to change the way our mind and body respond to stress. There are numerous ways to implement the RR in daily life. See Coping with Stress for more information on effective meditation-based relaxation techniques. The Truestar Mind Travel Meditation CDs can also help you unwind and relax.

Learning to use these techniques to improve sleep is not as simple as taking a sleeping pill, but the outcomes—a good night's sleep and greater control over the effects of stress on sleep—are worth it.