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How to Break the Sleep-Stress Cycle

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by Kara Baskin

We all know it--and feel it, too: As a nation, we're not getting enough sleep. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, 4 out of 5 Americans are unhappy with their quality of sleep. But what you might not know is that when we don't get enough sleep, it can amplify our stress. And that the inverse is also true: stress keeps our bodies awake and alert--so when we're stressed, we're less likely to get a good night's sleep.

This loop creates a sleep-stress cycle that becomes a serious drain on our health. "Adequate sleep is critical to our physical and mental wellbeing," says meQuilibrium Chief Medical Officer Adam Perlman, MD. "It's foundationally connected to everything we do, and it's not an expendable resource." Sleep affects every aspect of our lives, from mood to stamina to focus--and even things that are seemingly unrelated, like our happiness at work.

The good news? We can break the sleep-stress cycle. Here is Dr. Perlman's 5-step plan:

1. Be a daytime destresser.
Ever notice that it's hard to fall asleep after a stressful day, even if you're exhausted? That's the sleep-stress cycle in action. "It's essential that you deal with stressful issues during the day for a restful night," says Dr. Perlman. When you have a tense moment at work, take five minutes to go for a walk, grab a cup of tea, or even just take ten deep breaths. Taking a few moments to calm down and reset will help you prevent these stressors from creeping in after dark.

2. Just say no (to late nights!) We often spend time worrying about proper diet or exercise, but then skimp on sleep--to our detriment. When you prioritize sleep, you prioritize your wellbeing: Say no to plans that regularly keep you out late. Set boundaries around when people can expect to reach you. "Sleep is a major pillar of health," Dr. Perlman says."Many of us hold false beliefs around sleep, like successful people don't need it or that it's something we can do without. This isn't true. When we sacrifice sleep to do other things, it haunts us later by deregulating our emotions or perpetuating unhealthy thinking traps." Bottom line: Sleep is a necessity, not a luxury.

3. Be your own CEO of sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene. At least an hour before bedtime, start quieting down and preparing your body for rest. Do gentle stretches or yoga. Get into a soothing ritual, like enjoying a nightly cup of tea or doing a quick meditation. Invest in blackout shades and white noise machines. And if you're having trouble drifting off and becoming anxious that you're not falling asleep, soothe yourself with peaceful mantras like, "I work hard and deserve my sleep," or "Sleep is easy--babies can do it!" Let those sentences run together, over and over, until they lull you into relaxation.

4. Turn off the tech. Seriously! If you're tempted to answer one more email or check one more text, stop and ask yourself why. Are you afraid of missing something urgent or being unavailable? How often does an urgent email or text come at night? Chances are, not often. Your bedroom isn't the place for work or other stressors. "Use your bed primarily for sleep," he says. "This is an essential part of sleeping well." Stay away from your devices, whose bright lights can disrupt sleep, and nod off in peace.

5. Put the day to bed. Sudden bolts of anxiety ("Did I pay the electric bill? Did I RSVP to that party?") keep many of us up at night. Resist the urge to address issues that can wait until morning. As a first step, "Write things down and get them out. Before you go to bed, clear your mind and put the to-do list aside," Dr. Perlman suggests. If you're still having trouble, repeat an affirmation like, "None of my issues are so big that they can't wait until tomorrow," or "Things always look better and brighter in the light of day."

And when we get enough sleep, this is especially true.