I was recently prompted to work through an exercise called a Stress Load Reflection.
I don’t think of myself as particularly stressed. I don’t tend to ruminate on things (Thank you, meditation practice!). If someone were to ask me my day-to-day stress level, I would say low. And, on top of that, I still do things every day to reduce stress (asana, breath work, etc.).
So, I was shocked by how much I had to write about in this exercise. It was a great practice of svadhyaya (self-study).
If you are interested, I have outlined it below.
Stress Load Reflection
Take some time to reflect upon your personal stress load. For each of the sections below, write down anything that comes up for you.
1. Stress or anxiety about work
2. Stress or anxiety about your relationship or lack thereof
3. Stress or anxiety about other people
4. Stress or anxiety about the world in general – or specific aspects
5. Stress or anxiety about your health
6. Other sources of stress or anxiety
If you tried this exercise and found it helpful, please comment below and let me know.
In the late Fall, I wrote a post called 5 Ways to Sleep Better. Shortly after writing that piece, I had some stressful things happen in my life and I started consistently having trouble sleeping. In this recent struggle with sleep, I realized I had made an oversight in my original piece. The tips I offer are great ones, but they primarily attend to the night time.
If you are consistently having trouble sleeping, you need to attend to what you are doing during the day to help or hinder sleep as well. The focus of this post is on exactly that – things you can do during the day to help you sleep well at night.
1. Be mindful of what you eat
Learn what foods help you sleep and which foods might keep you up – and avoid the foods that keep you up for at least 3 hours before bed.
If you Google “what to eat before bed” or “what not to eat before bed,” you will get lots of lists and reasons for eating certain foods and avoiding others. This information can be helpful in guiding your exploration of how food affects you, but let your own observations be more influential in the decisions you make. From personal experience, I can tell you that dark chocolate before bed sometimes keeps me up, but warm almond milk doesn’t seem to hinder my sleep. You might find the opposite – or the same.
2. Spend time outside
There are lots of reasons to get sunlight and fresh air, but one of the simplest comes down to the process by which your body regulates your sleep-wake cycle. The hormone melatonin regulates this cycle, and it is controlled by light exposure. When it is dark, your body secretes melatonin to make you sleepy; when it is light, your body doesn’t secrete melatonin so you can stay alert and awake.
Long days in the office away from natural light and evenings spent in front of a bright computer or TV screen can disrupt a pattern of melatonin production that supports sleep at night and alertness during the day. Whether it is a walk on your lunch break or a warm cup of chamomile tea on your balcony in the evening, being more in tune with the rising and setting of the sun will support sleeping when the sun has set.
3. Exercise early in the day
Similar to light exposure, exercise decreases the secretion of melatonin, so it is a great thing to do earlier in the day to wake you up, but not the best thing to do in the 3 hours before you want to go to bed.
Exercise is also known to significantly reduce the presence of stress hormones in the body, which can be a huge hindrance to sleep, so you might find that exercise – no matter when you do it – supports sleep. So, as my teacher Yogi Vishvketu says, “Don’t listen to me, listen to your body.”
4. Practice pranayama
Pranayama is a Sanskrit word used to describe the breath work we do in the practice of yoga.
In 5 Ways to Sleep Better, I recommended learning how to relax as a way to support sleep. Specifically, I suggest learning to attend to the physiological changes in the body that occur with relaxation, such as a slower heart rate and breathing rate, lower blood pressure, and a decrease in muscle tension.
One of the best ways to attend to this skill is to practice it regularly throughout the day.
I have recorded a simple guided breathing exercise to support you in regularly attending to your breath. Try practicing it a few times a day. For many people, a mindful breathing practice helps relax the body and calm the mind – both of which will support sleep. Try the practice and tell me what you find.
The other points in this article are steps towards stress reduction. Mindfulness, time outside, exercise and practicing pranayama are all things you can do to reduce the experience of stress in your body.
Sometimes we will want to change our external circumstances to support a less stressful lifestyle, but a large part of stress reduction is simply about recognizing that there are things we can do to help guide ourselves through the physiological experience of stress with more ease.
Another beautiful way to decrease stress is to regularly follow a guided relaxation, and I have recorded a simple guided relaxation to support you in relaxing your body. Our inclination is often to do these sorts of things before bed, but I encourage you to try practicing it earlier in the day.