In the past few days, I have had a number of clients complaining of the same two issues - stress and sleep problems. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. The December holidays are a big stress for a lot of people. Different types of stress are all coming together at the same time.
The first type of stress that clients may be experiencing is acute stress. This stress caused as an immediate reaction to some circumstance and of short duration. This kind of stress can be caused by trying to catch a plane at the airport or dealing with heavy traffic on the way to a party. Though acute stress is uncomfortable, it is usually over quickly and often does not cause the problems of chronic stress.
Chronic stress is stress that lasts during long periods of time and may be caused by different things. First, there are environmental and job stresses. These may last for years but extra stresses arise at the end of the year. December job stresses include: finishing off projects before the end of the year, trying to reach or work with people who are unavailable because of holiday travel, parties or who have already mentally shut down for the year and financial pressures as end-of-the-year numbers come in. Environmental stresses include: all the home preparations necessary for holiday celebrations, crowded stores, and social expectations from family and friends.
Besides all the external stresses listed above, there are also internally generated stress caused by worrying and being anxious about uncontrollable circumstances. December seems to trigger high expectations. We see the beautiful holiday parties portrayed in movies and on tv and shown in the latest life-style magazine and transfer those expectations to our own lives. We worry about things we can't control - will Uncle Harry's drinking spoil the Christmas dinner? Will Annie love the gift? This year as we continue in the Great Recession, many people are worried about financial issues which seem even more problematic at the season of gift giving. Credit card bills, mortgage payments, medical problems may all be causing anxiety and worry.
December is often the time of the year when fatigue and overwork build up to a point where the body is unable to re-energize. We're expected to keep up with all the demands of work, childcare, home maintenance and then add in all the expectations of a Hallmark Christmas.
It is no wonder that often by the third week in December, people are seeing the effects of all the stress in their lives. Among them may be physical issues. With deteriorating immune systems, this may be the time when we are very vulnerable to colds and other viruses. Other physical issues may range from physical fatigue, to decreased interest in sex, to heart problems. Emotional issues may include irritability and depression. Eating disorders may be even more of a challenge during the holidays. It may also cause sleep problems.
Stress and sleep problems almost become a "which came first" issue. Lack of sleep doesn't just make you feel tired. It can actually make you more stressed. In 2002, the National Sleep Foundation did a study called Sleep in America. Those who got fewer than six hours of sleep on work days were much more likely to report feeling stressed than those getting 8 hours (32% for those with six hours versus 16% for 8 hours). This in turn reflected in their daily lives. Study respondents agreed that inadequate sleep impaired their work performance (93%), led to health problems (90%) and made it difficult to get along with others (85%).
On the other side of the coin, those stresses like fatigue, overwork, job stress and internally-generated stress can make it very difficult to get to sleep. Your body simply does not want to shut down when you are upset. The stress response produces hormones that act to keep you alert and defensive. My clients often describe going to bed and immediately becoming aware their mind is racing with thoughts of everything that happened that day. They think of what they "should have done" and what the "could have said". They worry about tomorrow and are unable to sleep.
Finding solutions for stress will in turn help sleep issues. Exercise is a wonderful way to deal with stress. By exercising you release endorphins to deal with the stresses. Nurture yourself: take a bubble bath, call a friend, take the dog for a walk. Deep breathing is another way to relieve stress. Hypnotherapy is an excellent way to do brief therapy to deal with the stresses in your life or with insomnia. Nurture yourself especially during this holiday season.