The amount and quality of the sleep you get has a big impact on how your brain deals with stress and therefore has a big impact on anxiety, depression and anger.
We all need a small amount of stress to function. We need to anticipate when something bad might happen so that we can do something about it. We need to recall bad things happening to us so that we can learn from them. We need to be a bit stressed when we have lots to do, because it helps us stay on track and get everything done.
All this stress has to be processed. The memories around stressful events need to be dealt with, because we do not want to re-experience all the stress every time we recall a bad time. We need to be able to remember things in a way that doesn’t stress us out again.
Our brains can process a lot of stressful events when we are asleep – specifically, when we dream. We dream for around 20% of our sleep, and usually remember only a small fraction of it – if any. Dreaming is the time when the brain processes all the things it has experienced during the day – and in particular, the stressful stuff.
Most people can remember a time when they have gone to bed when they are upset about something – maybe they have had a row with their partner, or are annoyed about something that’s happened to them during the day. Then when they wake up in the morning, they think, “What on earth did I get so upset about?” What has happened is that, during their dreams, the brain examined the memory of the event and restructured the memory so that a lot of the emotion has been taken away.
When you don’t get too much stress in your life, and you get sufficient sleep, the brain is able to process everything that has stressed you out the previous day during a night’s sleep. However, if you have a large amount of stress, or you don’t get enough sleep, then some of the stressful events hang around in your memories to get dealt with later – sometimes months or years later.
When you suffer a large amount of stress – such as a major accident or the death of someone close to you who you love – this adds a huge amount of stress which your brain spends weeks, months or even years to resolve. Large amounts of stress can also be generated by a continuous stream of small stresses – having too much work to do – worrying about things all day – and so on.
All this stress has to be processed, and dreaming sleep is our natural way of processing it.
We dream for around 20% of our sleep, and this is not spread evenly throughout the night. The first part of the night has more deep sleep and less dreaming. The dreaming increases as the night progresses. This means that if you are the sort of person who “gets by” on six hours of sleep a night, and “makes up” for it at the weekend – you are probably missing out on a lot of good dreaming time.
There are lots of habits you can develop to help you sleep better. Here are a few of them:
Avoid the habit of getting by with a small amount of sleep and catching up later on.
Avoid caffeine in the evening. The caffeine in a cup of coffee hangs around in your body for several hours. As a rule of thumb – it the caffeine in that cup of coffee reduces to about half in around five hours.
Avoid alcohol in the evening. Alcohol is a depressant, and so it does help relax the body, but it also disrupts the dreaming sleep, particularly in the earlier part of the night.
If you have “stuff” buzzing through your head – write it down. When you have something you need to remember, the brain can keep you awake as it tries to make sure you don’t forget it. So it goes round and round in your head. Write it down and the brain somehow knows you have a record of it, so doesn’t need to bother you about it any more.
Avoid a big physical workout just before bed. A body workout does tire you out, but your body is still working for some time after a big workout – so it may be more difficult to go to sleep.
Do exercise during the day. Make sure you get some exercise – even if its just walking round the block. It’s good for sleep.
Develop a wind-down routine before bed. The brain will get used to the routine and know that it is time to go to sleep.
Getting enough good quality sleep is an important part of managing stress and anxiety, so it’s worth thinking about how you are managing your sleep patterns.
If you cannot manage your anxiety on your own, you may like to consider getting help. In my clinic in Fleet, I help people with anxiety. I use hypnotherapy to help them get back in control of their lives and get rid of the unwanted symptoms.
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