3 techniques to try if stress is keeping you awake at night

Expert advice from an occupational therapist

person lying on bed while covering face with pillow and holding eyeglasses
(Image credit: Isabella and Louisa Fischer on Unsplash)

There's plenty to be stressed about at the moment, and it has had a knock-on effect on our sleep habits, with many finding it harder to fall asleep and get a good night's sleep than usual. There's actually a scientific reason why being under stress makes it harder to fall asleep. 

"When you are under a continuous level of stress it keeps your sympathetic system active, triggering your in-built 'fight-or-flight' response and providing your body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers," explains preventative cardiology specialist and occupational therapist Pranita Salunke. "In this state, you are unable to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the body's 'rest and digest' response that calms the body down after the danger has passed. Of course, the latter is also associated with helping you to enjoy restorative sleep, and a lack of good quality sleep can lead to issues with obesity and a host of metabolic conditions."

If you're finding stress is stopping you from getting a good night's kip, read on for three of Pranita's top tips for how to shift your body from sympathetic to the parasympathetic system.

1. Create a sleep diary

To make you more aware of what's going on, try creating a sleep diary to track your sleep patterns. "Are you having difficulty falling asleep, or is the problem maintaining sleep for the entire time? If you get up in the night, is it easy for you to get back to sleep? Are there any recurring dreams or nightmares you are noticing? How do you feel after waking up, rested or drained?" says Pranita. 

"Next, note important events of the days (what you did, what you ate etc.) and how they influenced you positively or negatively. Is there any association between sleep interruption and those events? Once you bring more awareness into your thoughts-events-sleep habits, you are in a much stronger position to make positive changes."

2. Try stream-of-consciousness writing

"Try sitting down and writing, in longhand, ideas or thoughts from your stream of consciousness. It can be any thoughts or minor niggles that are disturbing you. Racing thoughts can make it difficult for you to relax, but writing free hand in a journal to express any anger, frustration, worry, sadness can have a cathartic effect," says Pranita. "You might find it difficult to talk to another person, but once you empty your thoughts on the paper and write down exactly how you feel, you will notice the difference in the clarity of your mind."

The next step to overcome your worry is to jot down three practical steps you can take in the next few days. These should be things that are in your control. "Set a timeline: this way, you are putting your brain at rest, knowing you have a plan to overcome obstacles," she adds. 

3. Calm down your evening routine

Tempted to pop on the latest blockbuster before bedtime? Bad idea, says Pranita. Avoid consuming any particularly emotionally taxing content in the late evenings, as it will impact your mental state. "The time for blockbuster action movies is very early in the evening, not just before your bed-time!" she says.

In fact, it's best to avoid anything exciting before bedtime – that includes intense exercises. Instead, opt for something gentler. "Practice yogic poses, such as the child pose, and do gentle stretches before bedtime. These relaxing poses enhance blood supply to your brain, calm your mind and prepare your body for a deep and rejuvenating sleep," Pranita suggests.

Pranita Salunke has more than twenty year's experience as a Preventative Cardiology Specialist and Occupational Therapist. Her new book, Vitality: A Healthy and Happy Heart is out now.

Ruth Hamilton

Ruth is a lifestyle journalist specialising in sleep and wellbeing. She has tested more mattresses than her small flat can handle and will talk at length about them to anyone who shows even a passing interest, and has had to implement a one-in-one-out pillow policy for fear of getting smothered in the night. As well as following all the industry trends and advancements in the mattress and bedding world, she regularly speaks to certified experts to delve into the science behind a great night's sleep, and offer you advice to help you get there. She's currently Sleep Editor on Tom's Guide and TechRadar, and prior to that ran the Outdoors and Wellness channels on T3 (now covered by Matt Kollat and Beth Girdler-Maslen respectively).