All of us experience stress in our lives. Some amount of stress is normal, but it can be hard to know when the amount of stress you’re experiencing — or how you’re handling that stress — is unhealthy.
Did you know there is such a thing as perceived stress? We worry about things that really aren’t worth worrying about and things that are out of our control anyway. It’s all too easy to let these worries consume us and manifest in unhealthy ways.
In general, stress is a problem when it begins to affect your quality of life.
I frequently will have various things on my mind when I leave work for the day. When it’s time to go to bed in the evening, some of those things are still on my mind. I might lay awake in bed at night with thoughts just whirling around in my head. Before I know it, I roll over and see that it’s 1 a.m. The next day, I’m tired and my nurses can tell that I’m grumpy!
If nights like this become a regular pattern, it can lead to chronic sleep deprivation. I see this commonly in my clinical practice. My patients with chronic stress have more adverse health outcomes like acute illness, pain, gastrointestinal discomfort and even heart attacks. And as if you need more convincing, sleep deprivation also takes a toll on your productivity at work. One study found that insomnia results in the loss of 11.3 days’ worth of productivity each calendar year.
Sleep is a restorative time for our minds and bodies. Most of us adults need 7-8 hours of sleep per night, and children and teens require even more. The reality is that many of us don’t get enough sleep and part of that may be due to stress-related insomnia.
It’s important to spend time each evening getting ready for sleep. By that, I don’t mean just putting on PJ’s and brushing your teeth. Your brain needs to get ready, too. Make time to do these things every night to help de-stress your mind and care for your mental health.
Practice “letting things go.”
One of the best ways to do this is to spend some time each evening planning for the next day. Make a written list of things that need to be accomplished. Come up with a game plan for each item on your list. That way, you’re not thinking of new things after you go to bed and staying awake worrying about them. Write them down and then let them go for the night.
Make time to wind down.
Try to spend 30 minutes or so winding down each evening before bed. Talk with your spouse. Spend some time reading. Dim the lights and drink a cup of chamomile tea, which has relaxing properties.
However, avoid alcohol in the late evening. Although you might think it helps you fall asleep, alcohol often keeps you from getting a good night’s rest.
Look away from the screens.
I know I’m not the first to tell you this (and probably not the last), but screen time is critical here. In the hour or so before you go to bed, don’t look at your phone — period. Trust me, it will still be there in the morning. Take a break from social media and avoid the urge to watch TV in bed to help you go to sleep.
If you do wake up worrying about something, get out of bed and spend 10-15 minutes in another room. Clear your head and then try going back to bed.
Making these habits a daily practice should help you get a better night’s sleep on a regular basis. However, there are times when these conservative measures are not enough to relieve your stress. In those cases, it may be time to talk to your doctor about your mental health. If symptoms of depression, anxiety or insomnia are present for more than two weeks, make an appointment and talk openly about your stress and sleep struggles. Sometimes, therapy or prescription medication can help.
Above all else, try to spend time each day taking care of yourself.
Tired of feeling tired? Find a doctor today.
About the author
Mark Hinds, MD, is a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Hillcrest. He has practiced outpatient and hospital medicine in Waco since 1995. He attended medical school at UT Health Science Center San Antonio and completed his residency in Waco. He currently lives in Crawford, Texas, with his wife Michelle.