Being constantly under stress can wreak havoc on your body. In her book “The Superstress Solution,” Dr. Roberta Lee writes about ways to fight stress. In this excerpt, she focuses on why getting sleep and being rested are so important.
Rest and motion Like yin and yang, rest and motion complement each other. A healthy mind and body require a certain amount of rest and a certain amount of motion. Too much of one without the other simply doesn’t work. I’ve been saying this to my patients for years. “Get some rest,” I suggest to the mother of twins who clearly doesn’t carve out even a little time for herself. “You need more sleep,” I say to the fourth-year surgical resident who complains that he’s spent most of his residency “too tired to eat, too hungry to sleep.” The mother of twins looks haggard. The surgical resident is operating — literally and figuratively — on far too little.
Just as often, I admonish patients to exercise more — or at least just move. “Get out of your car and walk a few blocks,” I suggest to my female patient, a seventy-ﬁve-year-old suburbanite who never fails to be beautifully dressed but has put on several pounds a year for the past seven years. I also charge the young father who complains of lethargy to play ball with his sons as a way of energizing himself, blowing off steam, and keeping himself ﬁt.
Rest, and its extension: sleep. Motion, and its extension: exercise. Both are essential not only for the SuperStressed, but for everyone. This chapter will help you understand why you need both and how to ﬁt more of each into your busy days (and nights).
Rest: Restoring the body
Rest is the conscious form of restoration. When you’re resting, even though you’re awake, your body is restoring itself. Think of rest as the true state of awake stillness. Think of the meditative exercises you read about in Chapter 3. Your body is letting go when it’s at rest.
Of all the suggestions I make to my SuperStressed patients, the one that is the hardest for them to hear is this: Several times during your day, stop what you’re doing, get up from your computer, turn off your cell phone, and rest for ﬁve or ten minutes. By the way they look at me, you would think I was suggesting they stop breathing. Why? Because rest is a word that SuperStressed people do not like. Think about it: wouldn’t you say you don’t need rest? Don’t you think you’re doing just ﬁne? — even though you’re constantly on the go, always behind, always in catch-up mode. And if by some stroke of luck you do catch up, don’t you often just take on more, raising the bar higher and higher until it’s virtually impossible to scale it? Unless you sacriﬁce something. Which, of course, you do. And what is the easiest sacriﬁce for a SuperStressed person to make? The one that buys us the most time?
But let’s not cross the bridge to slumber just yet. Let’s rest for a moment on the subject of rest. Nothing can survive without rest. You might think that lying in a hammock or reading a book is the deﬁnition of rest, but for me it’s sailing, golf, or rock climbing. So who’s right? We both are. That’s because mental rest can be achieved through doing something you enjoy, something that lets your mind wander away from the everyday, mundane things on our plates.
Physically, rest gives our bodies time to repair cellular damage and absorb nutrients. But rest is also essential for our brains. If you’ve found yourself losing focus even when you’re trying hard to pay attention, you know that the brain in its waking state needs time to drift, to daydream, and to wander. Our brains check out sometimes without our awareness — they take a little nap, and then we “wake up” and become present again. Smart fellow, that brain. It knows when it needs a rest, even if we don’t.
Ernest Rossi, a specialist in medical hypnosis, explains this more scientiﬁcally when he describes a phenomenon known as ultradian rhythm. This is a natural cycle of repeated switching of brain hemispheric dominance, from left brain to right brain and back again. This switching occurs over a period of ninety minutes, during both waking hours and sleep. The left hemisphere is generally ascribed to logical thinking and the right is more adept at dreaming. The switchover itself, from one side to the other, takes around twenty minutes. Those twenty minutes are the body and mind’s natural time for recuperation and may leave you feeling just the slightest bit drowsy.... Some people try to buck themselves up by having a cup of coffee or a candy bar. Rossi suggests that taking a small ten-minute break can mediate the stress of struggling to surmount this down time. You can get through it without a break — who has time for a break every ninety minutes? — but that’s because the switch is going to happen again within a reasonable amount of time.
If you ﬁnd yourself regularly struggling during the day to stay focused and to shake off drowsiness, consider taking a power nap, a ten-minute snooze at your desk or on a sofa — just a short period in which to fully give in to your sleepiness. A lot of people swear by them, and we are now learning that power naps may have tangible health beneﬁts as well because you are reenergizing yourself in a natural way rather than requiring artiﬁcial stimulants such as several cups of coffee to keep you going. In lieu of a power nap, try some of the one-minute and ﬁve-minute relaxation exercises in Chapter 3.
Sleep: Restoring the mind
If rest is the conscious form of restoration, sleep is the unconscious form. In sleep, the mind is restoring itself by letting go of rational thought. Though the sleeping person is not aware of it, studies show that sleep is an essential part of the process of enhancing your learning and memory. Various sleep stages are involved in the consolidation of separate types of memories, and being sleep deprived reduces a person’s ability to learn. All most of us know is that when we skimp on sleep, we don’t function as well. And you can cover that up only so long.
From the safe haven of your apartment, or even from the bedroom, you might think: Who will know if I don’t sleep tonight? If you live alone, no problem: no one will know. But if you live with someone or you’re married, like my patient Suzanne, it’s a lot harder. Suzanne was on the fast track to make partner at her law ﬁrm. Her work was piling up. Even after she brought work home to do when the kids were asleep, the pile kept getting bigger and her stress increased. Her husband, Jack, was growing impatient. She knew he wanted some of her time, too, so when Jack suggested they retire for the evening, Suzanne dutifully followed him up to bed. But when Jack was asleep, she padded downstairs and into the den to do just “one more hour” of work. That hour turned into four, and although she returned to the bedroom, she was never quite able to fall back into a healthy sleep. After several nights of this, she was so sleep deprived that she nodded off in her ofﬁce. And on the bus. And at an opera she’d been looking forward to for months. She drank three cups of coffee to stay awake through the law ﬁrm’s annual meeting, but she was clearly lackluster and unable to participate on an intelligent level. Not exactly partner material.
Nature’s sleep cycles
Sleep has much to do with our biological rhythms, sometimes called circadian rhythms — a roughly twenty-four-hour cycle of the biochemical, physiological, or behavioral processes. Patterns in nature have developed by trial and error over millennia, and today’s scientiﬁc tools are conﬁrming their validity in relation to human sleep. We now know that the moon affects the movement of water and nutrients within different parts of plants and that there are direct correlations between plant growth and lunar phases. In addition to the lunar cycle, plants have internal rhythms that let them tell time and judge the optimal periods for ﬂowering and germination, as well as when to expect bad weather.
Animals have similar cycles — and so do human beings. For example, our cortisol levels rise in the morning and peak at 9:00 a.m., which is why heart attacks are 30 to 40 percent more likely to occur between 6:00 in the morning and noon. Our blood pressure follows the same pattern, reaching its highest level in the morning and falling at night, when we get ready to go to sleep. But today, when so many of us are literally stewing in stress hormones, our cortisol levels are higher at all times of the day.
Some insomnia-fighting strategies
Few situations are more frustrating than lying in bed wondering when you’re going to fall asleep. But if you’re one of the 20 million Americans who suffer from insomnia, you probably know by now that the direct route to a good night’s sleep is to relax before bed. Toward that end, here are a few foolproof ways to ease the stress you have accumulated throughout the day and start to relax so that you might drift easily into a restorative sleep.
Tune out the day. You’ve likely spent all day working your brain, so let it rest before turning in for the night. Try some activities that involve low mental effort, such as stretching or listening to calm music.
Don’t bring work home, but if you must, don’t bring it into your bedroom, and if you must bring it into your bedroom, do not bring it into your bed. Working in bed sparks an accumulation of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn makes falling asleep difﬁcult.
Make sleep a priority. Staying out late on more than the rare occasion can stress the body by interrupting the restoration it requires. Think about yourself and your sleep when making evening plans.
Stay cool. When your body temperature is elevated, it’s harder to stay asleep. Falling asleep is easier when your body temperature is at its lowest. The redistribution of heat from your core to your arms and legs induces relaxation and rapidly lowers the heart rate, prepping the body for sleep.
Relax to the beat. I’ve been intrigued by recent research on binaural beats, a therapy that has been shown to reduce anxiety and promote sleep. Binaural beats are tones heard through earphones. Each earphone emits a tone that is slightly different from the other with the result of two slightly different wavelengths reaching the brain. The change is imperceptible to the ear but the effect of these sounds is to change and entrain brain waves to facilitate relaxation and other health beneﬁts. One study suggests the beneﬁts of regular listening to binaural beats include reduced stress and anxiety, and increased focus, concentration, motivation, conﬁdence, and depth in meditation. I used a personalized version of this technique when treating Sara, a thirty-seven-year-old city planner from a large suburb of New York who held a senior position in city government. Sara had come to see me after three doctors were unable to remedy her many physical ailments.
At some point, Sara had stopped deriving pleasure from her achievements, and on the eve of being reappointed to a new term by the mayor, she was having second thoughts about accepting the position.
It turned out that several years before, soon after launching a computerized system that kept tabs on all of the city’s new construction and the construction companies, Sara had developed a serious case of eczema on her arms, chest, and face. For a year, she’d been on steroid creams to suppress the itch and on sleeping pills to help her fall asleep and stay asleep. Though she and her doctor recognized that the rash was stress-related, Sara couldn’t soothe her anxiety. When her program began to get national attention, she developed severe pelvic pain, which was diagnosed as endometriosis. She had two surgeries to remove the encroaching tissue, but it kept advancing.
She came to my ofﬁce believing that any high-proﬁle success she achieved would exact a heavy toll on her health. She was also worried about her growing dependence on sleeping pills. As usual, I began by reviewing her options, including counseling. “You’re not the ﬁrst to suggest that,” she said, but dismissed the idea as too time-consuming and also a political liability. “Can’t we just do something here? Now? Between us?” she asked. “I’m willing to try just about anything.”
I agreed. And I started by giving Sara a biofeedback tool called Biodots to monitor her stress levels for a week. The Biodot is a tool I often use as a barometer for reading stress levels. It is a small plastic dot the size of a hole left by a hole punch. The color of the Biodot can change when it’s on your skin. I usually put it on the back of my hand. The colors change to reﬂect the temperatures that you generate in your skin, relative to diminishing blood ﬂow through your blood vessels. When Sara was relaxed, the Biodot on her hand would be blue, and under severe stress, it would turn black. At our next appointment, she reported that the color never varied — the Biodot was always black. “Which tells us you were ‘on’ the whole week,” I said. “Do you think you relax?”
“Of course I do.”
“What do you do to relax?” I asked.
Sara said that after dinner (and sometimes during it) she watched TV, and at bedtime, she went upstairs and, after taking a sedative, usually fell asleep in her bed with the TV still on. That was a problem in itself because the screen light and noise were probably stoking her anxiety. We talked some more and drew up a plan.
“Okay,” I said. “Here’s what you need to do for the next three weeks.” I told her to turn off the television at least an hour before bed and to make sure that there was no ambient light in her room at all, not even a night light. Then I changed her evening routine. After dinner, instead of turning on the TV, she was to take a long bath with lavender essential oil and drink a calming tea. Thirty minutes before bed, she would take 1 mg of melatonin. I suggested that we create a script for a tape of afﬁrmations, which she would read over a background of her favorite music while doing a progressive relaxation exercise. The script we created, which was repeated four times on the tape, reﬂected Sara’s own vision of serenity:
• I am calm and relaxed.
• I feel quiet.
• My whole body feels soft, relaxed, heavy, and comfortable.
• My mind is quiet.
• I withdraw my thoughts from my surroundings, and I feel serene and still.
• My thoughts are turned inward, and I am at ease.
• Deep within myself, I am relaxed, comfortable, and still.
• I feel a deep, inner quiet.
We created the tape together, but Sara resisted the idea of using it. “I don’t know, Dr. Lee,” she said. “First of all, I’m not sure I can sit still long enough to listen to this four times, and second, well, does this stuff really work?”
I urged her to try it, explaining that she wasn’t just trying to sleep, but also learning to soothe her nervous system. The Biodot would show whether she was making progress.
Within a week, Sara called, as planned, and reported that the routine was “actually making a difference!” For several nights in a row, her Biodot had turned blue, and she awoke feeling refreshed. Now that she’d begun to access serenity and knew how it felt, I prescribed some brief relaxation sequences she could do during the day to keep her anxiety at bay. The combination of daily relaxation interludes and the nighttime routine paid off, and soon she was off the heavy-duty sleeping medications and on the road to deeper healing. (She kept her job, by the way.) She now tells me that her colleagues are hooked on Biodots.
Excerpted from “The Superstress Solution” by Roberta Lee. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Random House.