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Sleep More, Stress Less, Live Longer

iStock_000007980637XSmall People who are sleeping less than six hours a night are at risk for more cardiovascular events, more likely to develop diabetes, and more likely to die sooner, according to a recent study. People who sleep at least seven hours per night have better immune systems, less stress and lower body weight.

Sleep deprivation can be dangerous not only to one’s health but also to that of others around us. US statistics from the Department of Transportation estimate that 20% of drivers doze off regularly at the wheel, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates conservatively that, during an average year, “drowsy driving” causes 100,000 automobile wrecks, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities. These staggering stats are supplemented by data from the US military, surveys of truck drivers, shift workers, couples, medical students. All pointing to one simple fact: if we can’t sleep, sooner or later the body will react negatively, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Physical Threats to Sleep

TIME

Sleep time is under attack from many sources. First and foremost, our work and leisure schedules allow too little time for sleep. While this may seem like a no-brainer and suggest that there is a simple remedy (just allocate more time to sleep!), the problem of sleep scheduling appears to be more complex and somewhat intractable. The reason for this may be below the surface and may be due to a change in how we perceive sleep. While we continue to proclaim its virtues and benefits, at least out loud, aren’t many of us secretly wishing that we could simply do away with sleep altogether?

LIFESTYLE

Many people have a more complex lifestyle that demand an ever finer slicing of time slots. Time is a finite resource that can be neither reduced nor expanded, which forces a setting of priorities. And here is the heart of another problem: for many people sleep is no longer a priority. In fact, it is often considered a time waster that can keep us from other, more important activities.

ENVIRONMENT

Another potential problem is that sleep is not as undisturbed as it once was, in environmental terms. There is the interference of noise, either unwanted or induced (as in keeping music, TV or noise-makers on to “help us fall asleep”). There is the interference of artificial light, or rather too much of it, which we have grown so fond of and subconsciously seek. There is the interference of artificially controlled air, which may be either too dry or too humid or too hot and all variables in between. The A/C or fan or heater is on, adding to noise. One just can’t win the environmental battle in the bedroom!

CHEMICALS

What we eat, drink, smoke, snort, inject, wear, rub or apply can interfere with sleep. Medications, self-care products and nutritional practices that are designed to address specific issues may be very effective, but can cause side effects that have a negative impact on our ability to sleep. These modern chemical helpers may be (or perceived to be) necessary to fix a specific issue, and thus take priority over side effects that may include a negative impact on sleep.

Psychological Threats to Sleep

Individual situations vary greatly, but the following are probably perceived by most sleep-deprived individuals.

STRESSORS

Our own individual and habitual way of reacting to stressors large and small may have a significant impact on sleep. By suppressing a necessary release of emotion in the face of a stressor, we may temporarily “bury” feelings, thoughts, and impressions that find a way of resurfacing later, just when we are trying to relax and fall asleep.

INADEQUATE COPING

Our inability to cope with significant stressors in a timely and effective way may impact our ability to sleep. Not all stressors can be taken care of, i.e. eliminated, in a swift and painless way. Many do linger on, while we are looking for the right solution. Many stressors can be reduced in intensity or frequency. Others can be tolerated or ignored, after a suitable period of adjustment. Some stressors are of such magnitude and impact that we can only resolve them by removing ourselves from their influence, i.e. by moving away. Whatever the case may be, our coping response to stressors is multidimensional along time, frequency, and severity scales, and sleep deprivation is often a byproduct of the coping process.

ALLOSTATIC LOAD

Our stress level may rise and remain at high levels throughout the day, including the time when we’d need it to be lower so that we can fall asleep. This phenomenon is called our individual allostatic load. Allostatic load is the piling up of stress reaction upon stress reaction, without resolution, and without a return to normal arousal levels. Over time, this situation has the effect of permanently raising the set point of our stress level, whereby it is very difficult if not impossible to turn it down at will when we are trying to relax and fall asleep.

The Path to Better and Longer Sleep

There are so many sleep aids available nowadays, it’s a wonder we can even stay awake!  Fact is, most of them don’t work. The ones that do work do so by simply knocking us unconscious via powerful chemical agents. Is that real sleep? Many people report that it does not seem to refresh and restore, and chemically-induced relaxation simply bypasses the issues and turns the switch off. When we reawaken, these issues return and require another dose to be shut off again. This cycle repeats and repeats. Is that the way to fix this and get some rest?

The fix must start with identifying the stressors that keeps us from falling or staying asleep. Each night when you are trying to go to sleep, make a list of the thought-items that are swirling around in your mind. Do so for 7 nights. On the 8th day, look at the 7 lists, group thought-items together into issues. Now, you know within a good approximation what issues are keeping you awake.

Next, address the stressors so that they will no longer keep you from sleeping. Look at your issues and group them into three categories: the ones you can resolve, the ones you need to adapt to, and the ones you can ignore. Call upon your problem-solving skills and address the issues that can be resolved during the day. When you get to bed, intentionally stop trying to solve problems. Give yourself a break until the next day.

What about the issues I can’t resolve?  Here’s a radically different piece of advice: don’t even try to resolve them now. Accept that they cannot be resolved at 10pm or 2am. And, even more importantly, accept the idea that working on these issues will make your sleep more difficult and that it’s an exercise in futility. Instead of becoming more and more frustrated and agitated because you can’t relax, choose not to acknowledge your situation and don’t fight its impact. This may be the time to read a good book, go get a cup of herbal tea, listen to the crickets, make your list, jot down a few ideas about the screenplay, instead of tossing and turning and trying in vain to go to sleep.

Top 3 Ways Exercise Can Reduce Stress

Frauenberg at Stresshacker.comExercise is the omnipresent treatment adjunct for physical health. It is a prescription that is hard to escape, as even a routine visit to your physician will attest. But while the virtues of exercise may appear to be self-evident for the body, is there a rational scientific explanation of the mechanisms by which exercise is effective in mental health and well-being, and in particular for stress reduction?

The Research Evidence

Among the most significant evidence linking exercise to an increase in the ability to cope with emotional stress is the Nicholson, Fuhrer, & Marmot (2005) study of 5,449 cardiovascular disease patients, whose results confirmed an earlier study by Pelham, Campagna, Ritvo, & Birnie (1993). Both studies provided evidence that, among patients suffering from physical or psychiatric disorders, exercising increased motivation to be well while decreasing negative mood states.

In a study (Perna, Antoni, et al., 1998) among men and women rowers to verify the effects of a cognitive-behavioral stress management program, exercise was shown to reduce negative mood states and the level of cortisol. The rowers experienced significant reductions in depressed mood, fatigue, and cortisol level when compared to other individuals in the control group.

What Type of Exercise Is Most Beneficial?

When the available evidence is analyzed, no one type of exercise appears to be the “best” for stress reduction. Rather, personal preference and the enjoyment of the physical activity of exercise appear to be the two most important factors for mental health benefits. High-intensity aerobic activity does not appear to be necessary to achieve the mental health benefits of exercise (Doyne, Schambless, & Beutler, 1983; Martinsen, 1993; Blumenthal et al., 2002), unlike exercise prescribed for physical fitness, where aerobic activity and high-exertion for at least twenty minutes appear to be required for optimal results.

What Makes Exercise Effective in Stress Management?

As you might guess, since there is no hard-fast indicator of efficacy as too many individual factors cannot be precisely measured, theories abound as to what exactly makes exercise work in improving mood and reducing stress. Here are the three that are most widely accepted among researchers.

According to the Anesthetic Pain Relief Theory, the vigorous exercise of running, jumping, or weight lifting generates multiple minor traumas to skin, muscles and bones. These micro-traumas trigger the release of the body’s own painkillers, opioid substances such as endorphins and endocannabinoids. In addition to reducing the pain provoked by micro-traumas, these morphine-like substances also generate an unmistakable and very pleasurable sense of well-being (also known as the exercise high).

According to the Stress and Relaxation Hormone Theory, deficiencies in the hormones norepinephrine and serotonin signal the onset of depression. Exercise appears to increase the levels of both hormones, thus restoring their adequate levels and lifting the individual’s mood to correspondingly higher levels.

According to the Rebound Restorative High-Quality Sleep Theory, stress affects the quality and quantity of sleep and is in turn exacerbated by sleep deprivation. With respect to work stress, higher levels of stress at work appear to be closely correlated with sleeplessness at night and sleepiness during daytime (Dahlgren, Kecklund, & Akerstedt, 2005). Exercise has been shown to be very effective in improving the quality of sleep. Thus, exercising appears to indirectly reduce stress by increasing the quality of sleep.

Why Can’t I Just Fall Asleep!

Aaah, to sleep. Peacefully. Like a baby, a puppy, a kitty… Is that possible anymore? I haven’t slept well in so long. Every night is a struggle. I futz and futz and go to bed later and later—it doesn’t do the trick. Tell me doc, what do I gotta do?

Villefrance at Stresshacker.com Sleep deprivation is literally a form of torture, and a very effective one at that. You don’t have to be a fiendish Capulet spy to find out how true that can be. US statistics from the Department of Transportation estimate that 20% of drivers doze off regularly at the wheel, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates conservatively that, during an average year, “drowsy driving” causes 100,000 automobile wrecks, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities. These staggering stats are supplemented by data from the US military, children studies, surveys of truck drivers, shift workers, couples, medical students—all pointing to one simple fact: we can’t sleep. Let’s see what is happening, why, and look at some possible remedies.

What’s Happening to Sleep?

Sleep is under attack from many sources. First and foremost, especially in the westerly and northerly parts of the planet, our schedules simply allow much less time for sleep. While this may seem like a no-brainer and suggest that there is a simple remedy (just allocate more time to sleep!), the problem of sleep scheduling is actually very complex and with no easy solution. The reason for this is below the surface and can be uncovered only by identifying that our fundamental belief about sleep has changed. To put it simply, many of us no longer believe in the necessity of sleep, while continuing to proclaim its virtues and benefits, at least out loud. Secretly, don’t we wish we could simply do away with sleep altogether?

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