13 ways to sleep better when you’re stressed

Zena Alana
Talent & People Manager
19 March 2021
5 minute read

Counting sheep

I never had trouble falling asleep before the pandemic. But added anxiety and increased screen time make it harder to switch off at night. I find I’m glued to my phone later and stressing more while in bed, making it more difficult to fall asleep and often waking up in the night - which I never did before.

Charlotte Hamilton, founder of Sugar Storm Studio.

Covid-19 has caused our screen time to go through the roof, removed the boundary between work and leisure, and kept us at a distance from friends and other support networks. It’s no wonder that so many of us are struggling to sleep, just when we need it the most.

The stories we tell ourselves about success may not be helping. Leaders like Jack Dorsey, Indra Nooyi and Marissa Mayer are famed for getting fewer than eight hours sleep a night. Being too busy to sleep has become a badge of honour.

But lack of sleep can harm our health, longevity, concentration levels, decision-making, and more. Neglecting our sleep isn’t just bad for our wellbeing, it’s bad for business.

So what steps can you take to prioritise sleep during stressful periods?

Treat caffeine with caution

It’s tempting to reach for a coffee to get us through energy slumps, but caffeine works by blocking our sleep-promoting hormones. Around half of the caffeine will still remain in your system eight hours later, so limit your final coffee of the day to just after lunch.

When we wake up, our cortisol levels are at their peak. If you reach for a coffee straight away, you’re missing out on a natural spike in alertness. The best time to drink your first coffee is one to two hours after waking.

Don’t forget that tea, soft drinks and chocolate flavoured products like ice cream and cereal can be packed with caffeine, too. Cherries and almonds are just some of the foods that are thought to promote sleep, so try a sprinkle with dessert.

Make workouts a priority

Exercise may not solve your problems, but it can boost your mood and energy so you feel ready to tackle complex challenges.

“Getting exercise for a minimum of 60 minutes per day has helped me fall asleep faster and sleep deeper” says business strategist Jenny Melrose. “My thoughts are not racing with all the things that need to be done within my business and I am able to hit the ground ready to take on the day. I have also found that my clients that have seen the greatest gains during the pandemic have been those that are keeping to as much of a routine as possible when it comes to their exercise because it is one of the few things that they can control.”

Don’t bring your work to bed

“The brain works off associations” says therapist Natalie Moore. “If you associate your bed with sleep, then as soon as you get in, your mind will start to quiet and your body will begin to drift into a peaceful slumber. But if you associate your bed with work or other stimulating activities, your mind and body will keep you up later.”

Set realistic targets

Are you trying to achieve too much? Many of us start the day thinking we have at least eight free hours ahead of us but fail to account for time-sucking everyday action. Use time-tracking software like Clockify or Toggl to see how long you spend on recurring tasks, then block out the time you need in your schedule. Include time for responding to unexpected interruptions, and managing your emails. With the time left over, be brutally honest about what actually needs doing. Try using an Eisenhower matrix to sift the must-dos from the to-dos.

Avoid heavy meals before bed

Eating a heavy meal before bed can leave you feeling bloated, uncomfortable and more likely to wake up during the night. One study found that young adults who ate within three hours of going to sleep had more disturbed sleep than those who didn’t.

Keep spicy food to lunchtime

Hot foods can cause heartburn and exacerbate sleep apnoea. Spicy pepper can raise your core body temperature, too, which makes it even harder to sleep. Save your spiciest treats for lunchtime, or three hours before bed.

No booze before you snooze

While alcohol can send us off to sleep faster, research suggests it can reduce sleep quality and make us more likely to wake up. Aim to leave four hours or more between last orders and bedtime.

Avoid counting your zzzs

It’s never been easier to track the quality and amount of sleep you’re getting at night, but be wary of sleep tracking tech. It could do more harm than good.

Create a space to capture your worries

If your stresses are keeping you up at night, create a space to capture them. Define and name your worries, perhaps in a journal or conversation with friends, mentors or colleagues. Try to do this during the morning or afternoon, long before you go to bed.

“When my thoughts keep circling, I get out of bed and write them down in a notebook” says Jamie, a self-employed architect. “Then I close the notebook, put it away and walk to bed feeling a little bit lighter.”

Block blue light

The blue light emitted by our screens is a powerful signal to wake up and pay attention. Evening screen time can put our body on high alert, just when we should be producing more of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. To combat this, take full advantage of night mode on your devices, or try blue-light-blocking glasses.

Commit to a shut-off time

“Decide on the time that you want to stop working and commit to it” says Charmain Jackman, founder of InnoPsych. “Consistency is key, and once you hold to this time, your body will naturally re-adjust and you will notice that you get tired around that time.”

Ground yourself

“My clients really like grounding techniques like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique” says Charmain Jackman. “List 5 things you can see; 4 things you can touch or feel; 3 things you can hear; 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. It helps to bring you into the present moment and distracts you from any negative thoughts, worries, or your to-do list.”

Try a pre-bed ritual

“One of the ways I like to create a calming transition to sleep is to have a night-time routine” says Natalie Moore. “I dim the lights, put on soothing music and stretch my body or read for 15 minutes. This signals to my brain and body that it’s time to transition from a more productive, active state into one of restoration. The longer you commit to an evening ritual, the more effective it will be in lulling you to sleep.”

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