We live in a world that seems to be moving faster every day. Everything from family and financial concerns to a change in caregiving responsibilities can leave you in a stress-inducing overload. As an unavoidable part of life, stress isn’t something that can (or should) be avoided. However, if left unchecked, it can interfere with your quality of life.
There are practical, natural ways to help bring order to a chaotic life. Meditation is a simple practice that teaches you to let go of troubling thoughts. Scientists have begun to better understand how meditation not only calms the mind but actually changes how the mind and body function. It also can improve your stress management and allow you to get better sleep.
The Heavy Toll of Stress
Stress serves an important purpose—survival. When you enter a stressful situation, the fight or flight response gets triggered, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into your system. These hormones allow your body to escape dangerous situations. Unfortunately, when you’re under chronic stress, these hormones flow through the body much longer than they were ever intended to, and the long-term consequences aren’t healthy.
Chronic stress can lead to:
A depressed immune system
High blood pressure
Changes in eating habits
The Stress-Sleep Deprivation Cycle
Stress and sleep have a unique and cyclical relationship. The cycle often starts with worry and anxiety, which can make it hard to fall asleep at night. Whenever you get less than seven to eight hours of sleep, the recommended amount for the average adult, you enter the early stages of sleep deprivation.
In turn, sleep deprivation makes it difficult to manage emotions, especially ones that cause stress. The emotional center of the brain, the amygdala, becomes more sensitive to negative stimuli while the reasoning center of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, gets less active. Your susceptibility to stress-inducing thoughts increases as you lose sleep.
Once the cycle of stress and sleep deprivation start, they continue to feed one another. After a few nights of sleep trouble, many people start to feel stressed about falling asleep, feeding the cycle.
Unfortunately, many symptoms of chronic stress are similar to and magnified by sleep deprivation. Like stress, sleep deprivation also may lead to digestive problems, a depressed immune system, diabetes, heart problems, and mental health issues. To truly manage stress, you have to get the sleep you need.
Manage Stress (and Sleep) With Meditation
Meditation has the benefit of directly addressing problems with both sleep and stress by training the mind to let go of stressful thoughts. There are many methods and forms of meditation, but mindfulness meditation, in particular, has been found to enhance the mind’s ability to focus on the present. By concentrating on feeling present sensations, you can let go of worrisome thoughts.
Meditation has become more mainstream in the last few decades, which means scientists have begun to study what it does to the mind and body. The results support what experienced meditative practitioners have known for years; meditation changes the body.
One study found that practicing meditation helped reduce pain perception by decreasing the amount of pain anticipated. Chronic pain can certainly cause stress and sleeplessness. For chronic pain sufferers, meditation can be used in conjunction with pain medications or other pain reduction methods. The ability of chronic pain sufferers to focus on their present condition, they’re better able to manage their pain levels.
The sensitivity to negative stimuli experienced in the amygdala during sleep deprivation can be brought under control through meditation as well. Regular meditation practice eventually causes the amygdala to shrink in size while the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for concentration, attention, and higher reasoning, thickens. The connection between these two areas strengthens as well, allowing better emotional management. While meditation isn’t intended to control emotions, it trains the mind to let negative thoughts flow through and out of the mind rather than stay put where they can increase stress.
Boost Your Sleep for Continued Stress Relief
Regular meditation can’t wholly counteract chronic sleep deprivation without a serious effort to develop good sleep habits. A full seven hours of sleep gives you the best chance of handling stressful situations.
Good sleep starts in a bedroom devoted to rest. A comfortable mattress and pillow are a must, but the conditions of the room are essential too. For example, a room temperature between 60 to 68 degrees helps support the drop in body temperature necessary for the onset of sleep. Complete darkness helps signal the brain that it’s time to release sleep hormones and, of course, a quiet atmosphere allows both mind and body to relax.
Behaviors and habits play an important role in sleep as well. To help yourself sleep better try:
Keeping a Consistent Bedtime: Your sleep-wake cycle is controlled by 24-hour biological and physiological cycles called circadian rhythms. A consistent bedtime supports these regular cycles and helps the brain know when to release sleep hormones.
Eating Healthy and Smart: A well-balanced diet helps your body function at peak efficiency. Heavy, high-fat foods can cause digestive distress that interferes with your ability to stay asleep. Stimulants like caffeine block the release of sleep hormones so they should be avoided at least four hours before bed. If you need a late night snack, try foods that promote the production of the sleep hormone melatonin like bananas, almonds, or dairy products.
Developing a Bedtime Routine: If you’re looking for a way to incorporate meditation into your daily schedule, your bedtime routine is the perfect place. Bedtime routines help signal the brain to release sleep hormones, and they’re a good way to relieve stress or tension built up throughout the day. A routine can include any activity that makes you feel calm and relaxed like reading a book, listening to quiet music, or taking a warm bath.
Turning Off Screens Early: The bright blue light from electronics can suppress the release of melatonin, delaying the onset of sleep. Turn those screens off at least two to three hours before bed to prevent any disruptions.