This year has been filled with unusual amounts of stress for most people as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. So much fear, uncertainty, financial stress, and psychological stress are taking their toll on our level of stress and sleep.
As the holidays approach, some of you may be making slightly different than usual plans. The holidays are often a source of stress for many people. Some people struggle with loneliness, family dynamics, finances, and meeting others’ expectations.
This year comes with an added level of stress and complexity due to the current pandemic. With all this in mind, it’s more important than ever to prioritize your health by mitigating the effects of stress.
The difference between stress and being stressed out
Stress happens. There’s actually nothing wrong with stress. It is a constant factor in our lives and is the body’s natural response to challenging situations. To help us adapt our body in a way says “hey we need more resources here to deal with this challenging situation, release hormones and chemicals to help increase our energy and focus while diverting resources from less helpful processes like digestion and sleep”.
When this stress process is triggered once in a while followed by a period of recovery our bodies are able to adapt and bounce back stronger than before.
The problem is when we trigger the stress response too often. However helpful, if stress becomes chronic it can create a lot of wear and tear on the body. This is the case for so many of us who have now lived through 9 months of pandemic stress, on top of whatever level of stress you were already going through. The fear, uncertainty, isolation, financial stress, and worry are taking a toll.
Because of this, you may be feeling the effects of this chronic stress. Essential bodily functions including digestion, relaxation, sleep, mood, and immune function are among some of the first systems to feel the effects of chronically high allostatic load. Allostatic load is “the wear and tear on the body” which accumulates when an individual is exposed to repeated stress.
So during this time of intense stress, you may experience more digestive issues, anxiety, trouble concentrating, staying awake, and falling asleep. We’re going to hone in on the impacts of stress on sleep in particular because stress and sleep deeply affect one another. In doing so we want to empower you with some actionable steps you can take to take care of your sleep and stress during this time.
Sleep: Connection to stress
Sleep is one of the most important aspects of our health. And as we mentioned above it may be one of the first things to go when you’re under chronic stress.
Sleep is especially impacted by stress because the stress hormones and chemicals work to prevent us from feeling tired, so you’ll lay down to sleep only to be greeted by that dreaded tired but wired feeling. And then there is the psychological impact of stress. Stressful situations make people much more prone to excessive worrying, which can keep many people up at night with racing thoughts.
The double-edged sword here is that lack of sleep is another source of stress. So what many people get stuck in is a never-ending cycle of stress, lack of sleep, more stress, less sleep. Leaving you feeling even more tired and stressed, which is not a recipe for health.
What you can do about it
This is the part of this article we’re most excited to talk about. While we’ve mentioned some seemingly dreary facts, we want to put you in the driver’s seat and give you some tools to give you can use to support your stress and sleep.
Part of the stress response involves activation of the sympathetic nervous system, a.k.a. the fight or flight response. The opposite of the sympathetic nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system. This involves a feeling of calm, slowing down, focusing on digestion, and rest. Turning on the parasympathetic nervous is a big part of helping our bodies to recover from stress. Breathwork is a powerful yet simple way to get you into this rest and digest state and get you out of stress mode.
Noticing the breath
Breathwork to get you into parasympathetic mode can be as simple as calmly noticing your inhale and your exhale.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and find a place to sit or lay comfortably. Then breathe in and out through the nose. As you inhale and exhale focus all your attention on the breath. If you get distracted and start thinking about other things tell yourself it’s okay and just guide your attention back to the inhale and exhale.
Putting your attention on something so simple like your breath helps to prevent intrusive thoughts from interrupting your state of calm by giving your busy mind something to do so that you can promote a restful healing state. There are also many benefits to breathing through only the nose.
Box breathing involves regulating the length of your inhales, exhales, and holds. When we are stressed out our hearts race and our breathing increases as if we are preparing to run away or fight. By doing the opposite – regulating our breath – we turn off the stress switch and start to enter the parasympathetic state.
- Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.
- Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut. Simply avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds.
- Begin to slowly exhale for 4 seconds.
- Hold the exhale for 4 seconds
- Repeat steps 1 to 4 at least 4 times. Ideally, repeat the steps for 4 minutes, or until calm returns.
Left nostril breathing
Lastly left nostril breathing is another way to promote the parasympathetic state. The right nostril promotes the sympathetic nervous system (stress), while the left promotes the parasympathetic nervous system (rest). By breathing only out of your left nostril you promote a restful state.
Place your hand over your right nostril to close it. Gently inhale and exhale through the left nostril. A slower more controlled breath will further promote a state of calm relaxation. This is a great breathing exercise to practice if you are having trouble sleeping as it doesn’t take much thought. You can simply cover the nostril and close your eyes.
Ashwagandha is one of our favourite stress-busting remedies. It is well known as an adaptogen to increase resistance to the effects of stress. It is no coincidence that ashwagandha is also promoted to improve sleep.
By regulating stress hormones and improving resistance to stress ashwagandha improves sleep, especially sleep that has been affected by stress.
One of its other key benefits is to increase energy. This is in large part due to its ability to regulate stress hormones and chemicals like cortisol and its ability to improve sleep.
When we’re less stressed and sleeping better, we’re more energized!
Valeriana Blend is a sleep-promoting blend of herbs that includes valerian, passionflower, and skullcap. This herbal blend promotes sleep from a variety of angles. Considered a nervine tonic, this blend helps to restore the nervous system and promote a sense of calm by eliciting a GABA response – the neurotransmitter responsible for calming the nervous system and decreasing excitatory neurotransmitters.
It contains gentle sedatives that some studies have shown to be as effective for sleep as benzodiazepines without their nasty side effects. In fact, because these ingredients have a restorative effect on the nervous system most people report feeling more energized and better able to deal with the challenges of life. These herbs promote relaxation of the body as well by relaxing muscles and nerves. By doing so the body is better able to relax into a restful restorative sleep and to wake up feeling energized and strong.
Share New Healthy Habits
We hope you’ll enjoy some of these resources during this time to help mitigate the effects of prolonged stress and worry that we’re all experiencing. They can be especially helpful during the holidays when we’re separated from loved ones and feeling lonely or sad. These health practices may seem simple but developing the habit of following through with them is often the most challenging part. Consider using this time to develop these new health practices and share them with your loved ones so you can practice and share the benefits of these simple but effective tools together.