Is running late for an important meeting really a matter of life or death? Does the prospect of speaking at a friend’s wedding seem like the end of the world? Even though we cognitively know that these things are not risks to our very survival, our bodies can’t tell the difference.
In the modern world, the things we perceive as threats on a daily basis are rarely likely to actually kill us. The problem is our bodies still respond to our thoughts of “threats” as if our very lives were at stake.
Stress is a natural response that helps us both get things done, and in extreme situations, survive potentially deadly situations. It heightens your alertness and mobilizes your body’s resources to maximize your chance of survival. However, in the absence of regular encounters with large predators intent on eating us, we have taken to projecting that response onto any scenario we perceive as threatening.
It was found in a 2015 survey that Americans perceived their average stress levels in a typical month as hovering around 5 on a scale of zero meaning no stress at all, and 10 being a great deal of stress. This pattern of being constantly under stress can wreak havoc with our ability to fall asleep easily, and enjoy a restful night’s sleep. And the problem is compounded by the fact that because many of us have become used to living under constant pressure, we don’t even realize how stressed we actually are.
There’s a saying among health professionals that the body never lies. Check in with what your body is doing for clues about whether you are stressed, even if you may not be consciously aware of it.
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Things that are normal, or situations that we expect, don’t tend to strike us as conspicuous. That’s because we are tuned to pay attention to things that are different from the norm. For this reason, if we are experiencing significant stress as a matter of course, it could be affecting our sleep and our health in general even if we do not feel any “more stressed” than we usually are.
Since our baseline stress levels are often so high, to begin with, the difference we tend to notice is not the one between feeling calm and feeling threatened, but between feeling “already stressed” and “extremely stressed.” This state of being constantly in fight-or-flight mode causes a build-up of stress hormones in the body. It also creates an imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of your autonomic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the action response that helps you rescue yourself from danger. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), on the other hand, governs resting, digestion, and reproduction. Sleep is also the domain of the PNS because we need to feel safe from the risk of harm if we are to be unconscious for an extended length of time.
The good news is that once we become aware of the problem, we can start taking simple steps to remedy it. Check in regularly with your body throughout the day, and when you notice the signs of stress, try these easy exercises to shift into a calmer state.
Once you get into the habit of loosening up during the day, you will notice a major improvement in your ability to unwind when it’s time for bed. This in turn will let you drift blissfully away to dreamland!