After a stressful day, few things sound better than a glass of cabernet and scrolling through your DVR, right? Not if you’re hoping to get a good night’s rest. It turns out that many of the techniques people commonly use to cope with anxiety may actually make stress worse and increase the likelihood that you’ll experience insomnia, reports a recent study in the journal SLEEP. In fact, three of the most common coping behaviors—using drugs or alcohol, self-distraction like watching TV or going to the movies, and behavioral-disengagement, also known as ignoring an issue—were associated with an increased incidence of insomnia.
The study of 2,892 individuals illuminated the interplay of a variety of factors for stress-related insomnia, such as the roles of gender, age, level of baseline stress level, and the chronicity of stress exposure over time. In the report, women were 1.4 times more likely to develop insomnia than men. Participants with higher levels of stress at baseline and people who experienced chronic stress exposure were also more likely to develop insomnia. While some of these effects have been observed in past research, this study is the first that examined other variables such as cognitive intrusion, or the degree to which stress disrupts the normal train of thought, and coping mechanisms, such as substance use or avoidance, as they relate to insomnia.
It turns out that the way you react to stress plays a major role in determining whether or not you’ll lose sleep. The findings indicate that the effect of stress exposure on risk of insomnia is significantly impacted by how much it infiltrates one’s thought process. A high level of cognitive intrusion greatly affects one’s odds of developing insomnia, and interestingly, past research has shown that attempts to suppress arousing thoughts triggered by stress tend to be ineffective and associated with poor sleep outcomes. Additionally, problematic coping strategies such as alcohol use and avoidance lead to sleep disturbances and can trigger a vicious cycle of ongoing insomnia and anxiety.
While the effects of positive coping behaviors were not measured in this survey, the researchers note that mindfulness-based therapies have shown promise in suppressing cognitive intrusion and improving sleep. That may be because mindfulness helps you deal directly with stress, while other coping strategies gloss over problems without addressing the issue, says Lodro Rinzler, a meditation practitioner and teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and author of the book The Buddha Walks into the Office. “The issue is still there, but it’s just getting bigger and badder. When it comes time to fall asleep, it’s like trying to put your car into the garage at 120 miles per hour. It’s just not happening.”
Instead, Rinzler suggests using healthier solutions to relinquish stress—not just at night, but around the clock—so your body and mind can relax, making it easier to get some shut-eye.
First thing in the morning: Set an intention. “Most people wake up and think, ‘I just want to get through the day,’” Rinzler says. That immediately puts you in a stressful mindset because you’re expecting a storm of unpleasant responsibilities and interactions that you’ll need to endure. When you begin your day with a positive intention such as “I’m going to smile more,” or “I’m going to be more generous,” you completely transform your daily experience from the outset. “The day is no longer something to get through but an opportunity to cultivate a positive quality within yourself,” Rinzler says. At the end of the day, it also gives you a new measure of progress. Rather than dwelling on how much you did (or didn’t) get accomplished, which may only generate more stress, come back to your intention and ask yourself how it went. If you feel like you cultivated the qualities you were hoping to achieve, you feel a sense of success and have the positive experiences that occurred because of them. (That stranger smiled back at me!) If you forgot about your intention, simply remind yourself that tomorrow’s another day and you can make an effort again, Rinzler says. “You’re measuring yourself against who you want to be in your day-to-day life versus who others want you to be. It’s very refreshing and gives you a sense of accomplishment and control.”
In the afternoon: Pause once a day. Set a timer on your phone to go off once a day. During that time, raise your gaze above your computer screen and connect with your breath. Notice your inhales and exhales for just 30 to 60 seconds. “This break cuts through the habitual speed and stress of your day,” Rinzler says. “You’re consciously hitting the reset button rather than allowing the day’s stress to pile up without any reprieve.” Later, rather than trying to park your car in the garage at full-speed when it’s time for bed, you’ve given yourself an opportunity to slow down and restart at least once that day. During more stressful times, set your alarm and practice this simple task every few hours to prevent stress from snowballing.
At bedtime: Let go of the storyline. “What keeps us awake at night are all of the thoughts, opinions, and expectations we have around a stressful event, even more than the stressful thing that happened or is going to happen,” Rinzler says. He dubs these thoughts your “storyline.” Often this is what causes your mind to race and interferes with your ability to nod off. “For example, you’re lying in bed having a conversation in your mind with a coworker or drafting an email that you’re going to write first thing in the morning.” To switch gears, tune into what’s going on right now in your body. When you’re feeling stressed, ask yourself, “What does it feel like in my body? Does it have a temperature? Shape? Color?” It’s the complete opposite of behavioral disengagement and puts you right there on the frontlines of your experience with stress. “The more we examine stress from this standpoint, the more it brings us into the present moment, draws us into our body and away from our stressful thoughts,” Rinzler says. Notice the sensations you’re experiencing and picture stress washing over you like a wave and then retreating with the tide. “From this perspective, stress feels more fleeting and less permanent than you thought.”