If sleep issues have been part of your stress patterns, watching and supporting these is key to coping with daily demands. Revisit the Mindful Evenings chapter in The De-Stress Effect and the advice in the The De-Stress Effect Supplement Guide.
One of the symptoms of high stress levels is waking with a start in the small hours – commonly 3am or 4am – and it can be one of the key signs that the fears and worries that cause us to feel unsafe are showing through. Don’t let this stress you out further – it’s believed to be normal to wake somewhat through the night – and there is plenty you can do to help. Personally I listen to audiobooks and find fiction engages my attention enough to intercept the brain commentary and rumination that can keep us awake and get in the way of being able to relax.
Try the following self-hypnosis methods from the psychophysiologist Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, to gently help yourself drift back into sleep:
- Exhalation counting – as you exhale, slowly count from one to ten, a count of one for the length of every exhalation. When you reach ten, start again. This kind of repetitive and slow counting creates a trance-like state that makes it easier to fall back to sleep.
- Your perfect bedtime story – think of something you love to do, that is non-competitive and engages your imagination, then literally watch yourself doing it step-by-step. The idea is to create a scene you find safe, comforting and calming. If you love to cook, imagine yourself chopping, stirring, frying up the perfect meal. If you love to paint, think of yourself sitting in and slowly creating your ideal landscape.
- Wave lull – imagine yourself lying on your favourite beach scene – anywhere from a cliffside in Cornwall overlooking the waves to a sandy bay in Barbados. Then count the waves lapping at the sea. As you hear a wave coming in take a breath in, as you hear it going out, take a breath out as you gently fade back into a restful state.
- Don’t clockwatch – turn the clock away from you before you get into bed at night. Watching the clock creates anxiety and what is called ‘Attentional Bias’, says Dr Ramlakhan. That’s when what you focus on – such as getting back to sleep – is less likely to happen because you’re simply trying too hard
Sleep is crucial but worrying about not sleeping makes you release stress hormones. If you’re lying there awake, rejoice in the warmth and comfort of bed; you’re still getting rest if you stay calm.
An evening Epsom salts bath isn’t simply relaxing, but helps truly switch off brain chatter by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. These salts are magnesium sulphate and contain the rich detoxifying and tension-reducing minerals magnesium and sulphur, which can penetrate the skin and help relax the mind and the muscles. Honestly, if you want to reduce stress before bed, this is better than Valium.
All pharmacies stock bog-standard Epsom salts and you can get a large bucket for about a fiver or buy online – Westlab is a good brand. Try and buy the pure variety as this is kindest; commercially prepared salt bath mixes can cause irritation to skin and eyes.
Add two cups to a bath of warm water along with a few drops of fresh lavender oil. If you really want to feel indulgent, add this Ayurvedic skin remedy and cover yourself top to toe in unrefined linseed oil or almond oil, really massaging every part of you (it’s amazing for softening hair but needs to be shampooed out twice), soak in the bath for up to 15 minutes, dimming the lights and playing some Bach or Mozart (this is shown to help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxation) gently in the background. If candles are your thing, light a few.
Then, ensure enough time after for your body to cool back down to body temperature before going to bed or a sudden heat drop in the night can cause you to wake. Read a book or listen to music rather than start doing anything or going near technology; keep the relaxation going to fall into slumber. Best of all do a gratitude practice – see page 161.
Help with meditations
Also, come back to the short meditations whenever you need help calming and coming back into your body after disturbed sleep:
You can also see my album of other meditations here