Everyone knows the frustration of a restless night in bed after a tense day. But sometimes chronic, everyday stress can lead to full-blown insomnia. The root of the problem, it turns out, might not just be all the worry but how you deal with it, according to new research from the Sleep Disorders and Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
“While a stressful event can lead to a bad night of sleep, it’s what you do in response to stress that can be the difference between a few bad nights and chronic insomnia,” Vivek Pillai, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Sleep Disorders & Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.
The study, which was published in the journal Sleep and funded by the National Institutes of Health, identified three coping mechanisms in particular that were associated with an increased risk of developing insomnia a year after a stressful event:
- Alcohol. Those who turned to alcohol or drugs in the seven days following a stressful event were at an increased risk for developing insomnia – a 5 percent spike for each alcohol/substance-related behavior. (According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey, a full 13 percent of Americans report drinking alcohol to keep their stress levels in check.)
- Watching TV. Sorry, Netflix bingers: People who coped by watching TV, going to the movies, or otherwise diverting themselves from their problems had a 4 percent increased risk of insomnia for each attempt at self-distraction. “If you’re going to the movies, sure, you may take your mind off the stressor but when you come back, it’s still there waiting for you,” Pillai tells RealSimple.com.
- Denial. Study participants who simply chose not to cope with their stress were in the biggest trouble, with a 9 percent increased risk of developing insomnia for every sign of resignation.
While the study looked at the long-term effects of stress-relief strategies, coincidentally all three make poor short-term sleep remedies, as well. A nightcap might help you feel drowsy initially, but alcohol will trigger sleep disturbance later in the night, Pillai explains, leaving you more tired and less restored come morning. Multiple studies have linked TV (and other screens) before bed with restless sleep and deleterious health effects; unsurprisingly, unresolved stress is not conducive to quality shut-eye either.
But certain stress-busting strategies can also help you drift off at night. Pillai recommends mindfulness-based meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, a method of treating insomnia that targets sleep habits and scheduling. And one 2012 study showed that a simple 10-minute tension-taming regimen of deep breathing and mental imagery made it easier for study participants to fall—and stay—asleep. If sleep problems persist for more than a month, Pillai recommends speaking with your doctor.