HELP FOR STRESS DISORDERS

By Eleanor Eggers, Ph.D., LP, BCB, (Senior Fellow)

        Sleep and Relaxation       


Sleep is extremely important.  The body, including the brain, needs its full quota of sleep every day in order to function at its best.  The amount needed varies from seven to nine hours.  A recent study found that certain biomarkers appeared in the blood of people who did not get enough sleep for just one night and that the blood took a very long time to recover. Regularly being short on sleep greatly compounds the problem. 


There seems to be a widespread attitude that sleeping is a lazy, slothful thing to do and that it is virtuous to get by on as little sleep as possible.  This attitude is quite unfortunate and is very damaging.  Please tell yourself that sleep is good and give your body all the sleep it needs.  One way to tell whether you have slept enough is to avoid setting the alarm and see how long you sleep naturally.  You can discover how much sleep you really need by doing this.  Hopefully, you would then be able to adjust your routine to include enough “sleep time”.


The body needs sufficient sleep, and deep relaxation does not take the place of sleep.  You need both!  Sleep is wonderful, but you get benefits from deep relaxation which you do not get from sleep. Deep relaxation rests the brain and the nervous system in its own special way, and this eliminates stored-up tensions. 


How much time does one need to spend in a state of deep relaxation?  Not enough research has been done yet to provide a definite answer, but we have observed that people benefit a great deal from practicing deep relaxation for as little as twenty minutes per day to as much as one hour per day.  People who have stress disorders need to spend more time in a deeply relaxed state than do those who do not have any stress disorders.


We have also found that people get into a deeper sleep or a deeper state of relaxation when they cover their eyes in a way that blocks out the light pretty completely.  This can be accomplished by using an eyemask or simply a folded washcloth.  Researchers have reported that animals which slept in total darkness were better off healthwise than those which slept in a room that had a sliver of light coming under the door.           


Eyemasks are inexpensive and are readily available.  You can purchase one at a travel store or online.  You may need to go through a period of adjustment in order to get comfortable while wearing one.  When you try an eyemask for the first time, you may find it uncomfortable.  However, after you get used to it, you will probably find that you like it.


The other alternative is to use a folded washcloth.  It is best to use a dark colored one which is quite soft.  Again, it may take a little getting used to, but you will probably eventually like it.  You may have to adjust it when you turn over. However, after a while, you will find that you can do that “in your sleep”.


Usually the term “relaxation” means the opposite of “work” or simply engaging in some kind of pleasurable activity, some diversion.  A state of “normal” or “ordinary” relaxation can be distinguished from a state of “deep” relaxation.  In the former the person may be comfortable and pleasantly “relaxed” rather than uptight and tense while in the latter he or she may be in a state of complete relaxation of the muscles and mind and in a state of complete passivity.  We need to practice both kinds of relaxation, “normal” or “ordinary” relaxation and "deep" relaxation.


One important reason that many people do not get enough sleep or relaxation is that they are trying to do too much.  They are over-committed and over-scheduled.  This adds greatly to the stresses which they must cope with.  We need to reduce the stressors as much as we can.  One way we can do this is by reducing our commitments and eliminating all the tasks which are not absolutely necessary.  We need to reserve time for sleep and relaxation (both "normal" relaxation and "deep" relaxation).


It has been my observation that most of the patients I have seen for treatment of their stress disorders fit the above description.  They are high achievers who are accustomed to pushing themselves to accomplish, and they have been richly rewarded for their efforts.  Probably no one ever advised them to cut back on their activities.  We always get lots of praise for doing more and more.  No one ever praises us for doing less and less. My mission in life seems to have become one of advising people to do less "stuff" so that they will have time to take care of themselves properly and relax and enjoy life!  Please try to remember that taking care of your own health has to be given top priority.  If you lose your health, you will be greatly limited with regard to how much you can do both for yourself and for others.