Stress-less sleep
December 7, 2006 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Help my girlfriend deal with stress so she (and I) can sleep.

My girlfriend is a type-A person who likes to keep all aspects of her life organized. This organization allows her to not only be more efficient in everything she does, but also allows her to alleviate stress on a daily basis. She runs whenever she can and journals to deal with stress that can be verbalized and can't be expunged through exercise. Each of these coping mechanisms helps her deal very effectively with stress. However, she works during the day and has class at night, and so she is often thinking and working until about an hour before she goes to sleep, and thus has trouble "downshifting" from work mode to sleep mode.

Whenever my girlfriend has this late night stress, she struggles for up to two hours to fall asleep. She has extreme trouble getting comfortable and obviously ends up in a frustrating loop. As she becomes more frustrated and tired, she often begins to feel nauseous, which simply makes matters worse. This stressful process of falling asleep (or not) is negatively effecting both of our energy levels on a fairly frequent basis. She's looking to find some sort of method that would allow her to alleviate stress and downshift from active problem solving mode to restful sleep mode. Any meditation hints, visualization, or whatever else you suggest would definitely help!

Thanks in advance...
posted by SanctiCrucis05 to Health & Fitness (45 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Alpenglow at 2:21 PM on December 7, 2006

Zen. Being compulsively organized does not relieve stress.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:26 PM on December 7, 2006

Watching mindless tv helps me unwind. It does all of the thinking for you and breaks that cycle of overthinking/stressing. Make sure not to watch TV in bed though. Let her have an hour to just vegetate in front of the tube. Might work for her.

Also, getting into a routine often helps. After her class, perhaps she could take a few minutes to do some yoga or meditate or just listen to some pretty music - taking the time to be still. Do this every night at the same time. Hopefully in a wee bit of time she'll have broken the cycle and have a handle on the late night stress.

Best of luck as lack of sleep really really sucks.
posted by Sassyfras at 2:30 PM on December 7, 2006

Your girlfriend is having a normal, human reaction to the amount of stress she puts on herself all day. She may consider herself to be a Type A personality in a positive light, but it's not necessarily a functional or satisfying way to conduct oneself. Check out for example.

When you are operating outside of your abilities, your body and mind let you know about it in the form of pain and discomfort. As patterns set in, these discomforts become part of a behavioral loop as you described. She can try to trick herself into calming down at night, but ultimately the only way to stop burning yourself is to take your hand off the stove, you know what I mean?

The problem you're describing is more than just an occasional inconvenience. It's a reliable byproduct of her lifestyle, and will continue to take a toll on her. Whatever she chooses as a remedy, she'd better do it just as consistently as she does all this busy-stuff, or it will never help very much.
posted by hermitosis at 2:30 PM on December 7, 2006

There are guided meditation cds you could try. There are many different companies out there that make them (such as this one). I have one at home that I use occasionally, and it puts me to sleep pretty quickly - I doubt that's the desired effect - but It's pretty soothing to listen to. I still vote for wine though.
posted by Alpenglow at 2:34 PM on December 7, 2006

Uh, at the risk of sounding coarse.....have you tried sex? That usually helps me get de-stressed and sleepy.
posted by gnutron at 2:36 PM on December 7, 2006

Man, sex makes me wide awake.
posted by Sassyfras at 2:38 PM on December 7, 2006

I generally have the same problem when I'm coming off a coding jag. I find that a half hour Walking Meditation works very well.

There's nothing like being truly aware of your body to get your mind to shut the hell up.
posted by tkolar at 2:39 PM on December 7, 2006

Marijuana is the solution to this problem, guaranteed.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:40 PM on December 7, 2006

Crossword puzzles do the trick here. And I don't turn off the light until I'm 99% asleep -- that way my brain doesn't have a chance to start whirrrrring up again before sleep gets me.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:41 PM on December 7, 2006

Response by poster: hermitosis -- While I take your point, the amount of work is not her choice, but a reality of attending a graduate school that requires a fulltime internship in addition to cousework and homework. Until she finishes that, there's no way of simplifying.

Gnutron, Alpenglow -- I think the combination of your two suggestions works nicely!

Sassyfras -- The mindless tv does occasionally work, but it depends on how much time there is between work and bed. The semi-regular yoga/meditation might be a good approach though.
posted by SanctiCrucis05 at 2:43 PM on December 7, 2006

I'm the same way and I've found that a new ritual of having a large cup of chammomile tea before bed works for me. That and regular exercise in the early evening.
posted by divka at 2:44 PM on December 7, 2006

When she jogs and journals, is she doing it because it helps and she enjoys doing it, or because she thinks it should help and she should do it? The latter behavior can be very common among Type-A personalities--"Doctors say one hour of yoga is excellent for destressing, so I will do one hour of yoga from exactly 7:25am to 8:25am, after which I will have a piece of whole-wheat toast and eight ounces of homemade chai . . ." etc etc. What I mean, is usually the best de-stressor is doing something you like doing that doesn't require too much preparation or intensity, something that's easily adjustable to your schedule. This can be watching TV, doing yoga, jogging, playing video games, taking the dog for a walk, having mad crazy sex, knitting, whatever.

I mean, I think for de-stressing to work it has to be a sort of organic process, not something you necessarily feel you must do day after day.
posted by Anonymous at 2:47 PM on December 7, 2006

However, she works during the day and has class at night, and so she is often thinking and working until about an hour before she goes to sleep, and thus has trouble "downshifting" from work mode to sleep mode.

I have this problem if I try to sleep when I haven't "downshifted" yet. I also had pretty serious problems falling asleep when I was around 10-14 (hours a night). As I aged, I started to pay attention to when and why I was able to sleep. Here are a few ideas:

1.) The most important thing, for me, is that I don't actually go to bed until I think I'm tired enough to fall asleep. I don't just go to bed because it's "time to sleep"--if I do, and I'm not actually tired enough to sleep, the frustrated tossing and turning that you mentioned is the result.

2.) Look into a white noise machine. It could be as simple as a clock-radio turned to static or a fan; I use a ceramic fan/heater (the dual purpose allows me to use it both in the winter and the summer). Most girlfriends I've had hated it for the first night or two, and I end up turning it off for them. However, at some point, I ask them to try sleeping with it on and, inevitably, they "don't mind" it. Within several weeks they're turning it on themselves if they go to bed before I do.

I've read a few reports about "white noise" machines, but you'd have to look into it yourself a bit more to judge the validity. From what I read, they help you sleep better once you're asleep, in addition to helping you fall asleep. Apparently, during the night there are a lot of house sounds (noisy furnaces, etc.) that will almost wake you up--they'll take you out of a restful state and you end up with less useful sleep every night.

Perhaps in addition to falling asleep more easily, better sleep would also be useful for your girlfriend.

(note: my ex, and a few other people I know, have sworn by listening to CBC Radio Overnight when they sleep)

3.) Alpenglow mentioned wine. This might work, actually. A glass five or ten minutes before she goes to bed might calm her nerves and relax her. Besides, a glass of red a day is apparently good for you! ;)

4.) Sex!

5.) I like to have a hot shower before I go to bed (or a hot bath). Maybe she should try a hot bath when she gets home. That and some light reading material (or some Coltrane) can do wonders.

6.) Finally, I've never taken any classes or read anything about meditation, but my own self-taught method is just to... think about nothing. If I catch myself actively thinking about something, I try to clear my mind. It's kind of fun, actually, as I find that when I do I end up picturing all sorts of weird things in my head, like I'm chasing down the rabbit hole. Her mileage may vary, of course, depending on her relative level of insanity as compared to my own!

Those are just a few ideas off the top of my head. Really, though, the most important thing is the short turnaround between when she gets home and when she tries to go to sleep. I would recommend she try a few of the things I mentioned, or even veg out in front of the t.v. with a glass or two of red wine until she feels suitably tired.

Oh, I had one final thought. My current girlfriend also has a lot of trouble sleeping, to the point where she might lay up for three or four hours at night when she's stressed out (as she is now, at exam time). When she spends the night here, and can't sleep, I lightly rub her back, sometimes talk quietly to her (not about anything very interesting), and lay in whatever position is most comfortable for her, at least until she's asleep or on her way there. A few times I've even suggested we move around the bed a bit so she can get that I'll-never-get-to-sleep feeling out of her head: we end up flipping over so that our pillows/heads are where our feet usually are. The few times we've done this it's worked, but it's not very scientific...

Good luck! I'll post more later if I think of anything else.
posted by The God Complex at 2:58 PM on December 7, 2006

Response by poster: Schroedinger -- The running and journaling is helping, not an obligation. She's always been and athlete and would be running even if it didn't help her with stress, etc.
posted by SanctiCrucis05 at 2:59 PM on December 7, 2006

The mindless tv does occasionally work, but it depends on how much time there is between work and bed.

I can't stress this enough: having a set time for "bed", a time when she has to be trying to sleep, is likely to cause nothing but problems. I understand what you've said about her need to "organize" things, but in this case it will likely be destructive, rather than constructive.
posted by The God Complex at 3:00 PM on December 7, 2006

Seconding Meatbomb - weed will help her sleep AND might cut a bit of her daily stress level.
posted by tristeza at 3:03 PM on December 7, 2006

For me, a little light yoga (basically long muscle stretches and controlled breathing) really helped before bed. It requires a lot of focus on listening to my body, maintaining controlled movements, becoming one with my lungs and my heart. You don't have to worry about doing it perfectly, because your muscles will let you know if you're doing it wrong.

What about taking a bath together, with some herbal candles and bubbly water and no-strings attached? Talk to her about your interests outside of her work, about a book you read or a movie you saw.

schroedinger is very wise. One thing about stress is that it can become very compounding. "This destress method isn't working OMG now I'm even MORE stressed." When I'm lying in bed and I can't let go of the days events or the work I have to do in the future, sometimes quickly jotting it all down can help. Of course, if she keeps a journal, she probably already does this.

Also, I've found that light reading before bed is very relaxing.
posted by muddgirl at 3:04 PM on December 7, 2006

Big yes on the reading. The problem with mindless TV sometimes is that it's so passive and mindless that it doesn't pull you away from whatever is still whirring in your head. A light book or magazine forces you to focus on something outside yourself but has a lulling effect. I read in bed every night, sometimes half a page, sometimes a chapter or two, until I'm seriously dozing and only then turn out the light. This has greatly reduced my tendency to gnaw on the stressors of the day.

Also, probably the worst thing you can do when you're not able to sleep is to lie there trying to make yourself sleep. If she's nowhere near sleeping, she should get up, read, putter around, whatever until she feels not just tired but sleepy.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:16 PM on December 7, 2006

My girlfriend, who is just like this — so similar that I just had to call her over and read her the question — immediately asked, "Does she exercise?"

She doesn't normally do yoga or anything explicitly relaxing. She just finds that a workout a few hours before bed helps her sleep well when the time comes.

(Girlfriend says, "Tell her that yoga also helps.")
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:40 PM on December 7, 2006

A hot bath or shower is my favorite way to prepare for restful sleep. It works particularly well when it's part of bedtime routine, as one of a series of steps that lead to sleep.

Actually, on review, a cold wash is sometimes more effective than a hot one, as being more refreshing ... if I'm really too tired and I've failed to drop off quickly then getting up and washing in cold water is usually enough to make it easy to go to sleep.

Yoga and meditation would help lessen the type-A stuff, better than running.
posted by anadem at 3:48 PM on December 7, 2006

For me, fixed routines really helped me when I had mild insomnia -- the last 45 minutes were always the same. I don't think what you do is as important as establishing a regular pattern.

For my girlfriend, vigorous sex helps her sleep in the evening and de-stress in the morning before work. So, who am I to complain?
posted by modernnomad at 3:58 PM on December 7, 2006

Usually exercising before going to sleep does NOT help me feeling that kind of tired and looking forward sleeping.

I guess this is because of adrenaline being injected into the body by exercising (even if light exercise shouldn't produce that much adrenaline) ...but it seems at least nebula's GF isn't adversely affected by exercising when it comes to sleep..but I wonder if she goes to bed right after or if she has a relaxing hot shower, relaxes and so on for an hour or so.

But maybe stress should be considered as well, as very demaning routines and repetition do solicit adrenaline production as the body is constantly under stress ; if she goes to bed thinking about tomorrow and worrying (not literally panicking, but anticipating the tension of tomorrow) she is going to tense wonder she has probs getting sleep.
posted by elpapacito at 3:58 PM on December 7, 2006

To clarify, I meant the last 45 minutes before I wanted to sleep.
posted by modernnomad at 3:58 PM on December 7, 2006

I have the same problem (minus the nausea). My husband reads to me, and that puts me right out. Only problem is, now he thinks I think he's boring :-)
posted by Uccellina at 4:50 PM on December 7, 2006

Sleep in a different location. I have this exact same problem when I get stressed about something that's going to happen the next day. Part of what stresses me out even more is that my tossing and turning may be keeping my boyfriend awake. So I head to a very comfy couch in the next room, which also has the advantage of being a cooler temperature than our shared bed. I'm usually asleep in 15 minutes, tops.
posted by MsMolly at 4:58 PM on December 7, 2006

We have a hot tub. Late-night soaks are very de-stressing. A hot bath in a regular tub may do the same.
posted by GaelFC at 5:02 PM on December 7, 2006

Hmm, it seems no one has mentioned coffee in this thread. If she drinks it, cutting back in any degree, especially later in the day, can have a powerful and immediate effect.
posted by Listener at 5:09 PM on December 7, 2006

First, if i find out that you are MY boyfriend writing about ME there will be hell to pay. Okay, assuming this is just a coincidence.... :-)

What sometimes works for me is crochet. I know, I know. But it's totally mind numbing. Also, works. The point is that these items stop you from thinking about other problems. Sudokucombat is particularly good because it a competitive activity which is attractive to Type A's and it requires attention so you can't think of your problems you have to think about the task at hand. And if you drink wine while you play ... all the better.

Good luck!
posted by GIRLesq at 5:11 PM on December 7, 2006

Ocean wave sounds, rain, etc. Go to this site for some interesting sounds.
posted by JayRwv at 5:47 PM on December 7, 2006

Ambien. I use it when I can't sleep due to anxiety. Spendy and prescription but oh so good.
posted by phoenixy at 5:53 PM on December 7, 2006

Nobody has mentioned massage, which is weird. 5 minutes of good strong massage with concious attempts to relax all the muscles usually calms me down..
posted by aeighty at 6:17 PM on December 7, 2006

I'm the girlfriend of nebulawindphone, and this is what I have found to work for the problem of getting to sleep and staying asleep. Melatonine helps, and works good in the extended release form. (it's a hormone, so I don't think it would be a good idea to take it if she's on anti-depressants, but I'm not sure)

Limiting the amount of caffiene and chocolate is good. Neck and back rubs help me relax and unwind. It's hard to move and get more stressed when someone is sitting on you, rubbing tense muscles. If you get essential oil of lavendar, put it on a handkerchief inside her pillow case, or rub synthetic lavendar oil on her temples before bed this will also help her relax. Natural lavendar oil will irritate the skin. A really nice pillow also works wonders.

It also helped me to realize that work will be there tomorrow and that thinking about it now is worthless. Unless she's getting paid for the time she's at home not working, there is no point in thinking about it at all.

And lastly, if you go down on her with no strings attached, it's extremely relaxing.
posted by Attackpanda at 6:22 PM on December 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

Whenever I can't sleep, I write down whatever's bothering me, so I can relax knowing tat I won't forget it tomorrow. Lately I use a little 'busy executive' style handheld voice recorder, which is easier and makes for funny listening the next day. Listening to what keeps you up at night can be funny - it doesn't seem nearly so important in the morning.
posted by anthill at 7:04 PM on December 7, 2006

Seconding Uccellina.

When I read stories to my girlfriend she never fails to fall asleep, usually within ten pages. Her sleeping disorder are otherwise quite severe. Try the Moomin books by Tove Jansson!
posted by springload at 7:12 PM on December 7, 2006

My girlfriend lays on my shoulder and we chitty chat about our days. It's always relaxing for me.
posted by CwgrlUp at 7:37 PM on December 7, 2006

Focused muscle relaxation techniques are surprisingly effective! In a lying down position, beginning with the tips of the toes, focus on a single body part and consciously "relax" that area, move up from toes to feet, to ankles, shins, knees, thighs, hips, torso, stomach, back, etc, moving all the way up the body in increments until you get to the head. Break the parts of the head down even farther into: chin, mouth...etc., breaking down all the body parts into infitessimal sections. It is amazing the amount of tension we hold and carry with us, and sometimes only when a person consciously focuses on this stored tension can it be released.

When one can feel relaxation occurring in a part of the body that they did not even imagine was tense - in say, the mouth, it is VERY enlightening. To engage in this, a person would need to be in the mindset for it, meaning that your girlfriend would have to actually want to relax and let go of her stress. (Many people hold onto stress for reasons known only to them.)
posted by Kensational at 7:43 PM on December 7, 2006

Almost every yoga teacher I've ever had has recommended Legs Up the Wall pose for help with ending insomnia. I would probably also combine it with slow, deep breathing, meditation, or at least an attempt to relax the thoughts.
posted by occhiblu at 8:05 PM on December 7, 2006

She really ought to create some routine. It sounds like there's quite a bit of bad Sleep Hygiene involved.

Literally, it's almost everything mentioned about this.
posted by filmgeek at 8:06 PM on December 7, 2006

I'm a (recovering) Type A personality who can't sleep when I'm stressed. Yoga, tea, showers: these things aren't relaxing for me -- they're additional opportunities for my mind to race! The only thing that calms my brain is to write down the thoughts that are keeping me up. I don't sleep because my mind goes over the same stupid stuff over and over and over again. But if I write it down -- the lists of things to do, the scripts of conversations I'm rehearsing in my head, the terrible fears of failure -- my brain will begin to relax and let it go. It's like I've closed the loop.

If your girlfriend is writing earlier in the day, she should try writing before bed too. And it's possible that she avoids writing about stressful, hurty stuff in her journal. We Type A's are very good at compartmentalizing and walling off the thoughts that bother us the most -- until they come back to haunt us at night. Sometimes, for the really painful stuff (like an utterly humiliating moment I can't stop obsessing about) I make myself write about it on a piece of paper that I'll just throw away, because the idea of writing about it in a journal that I'll continue to have around is just too hard. It's incredibly difficult to force myself to confront my fears in writing, but I've learned that in the long runs it helps a lot.

For the record, Type A's benefit a lot from having a counselor to talk to from time to time. Not because your girlfriend needs meds or "therapy," but because it's good to have a neutral person who forces you to talk about the stuff you really don't want to talk about. And because talking about it makes it easier to deal with, and dealing with it makes it easier to sleep at night.
posted by junkbox at 9:18 PM on December 7, 2006

15 or 20 minutes of yoga in the evening puts me to sleep everytime. In fact, I won't take yoga classes at lunch because then I'm too tired and relaxed to go back to work. Even when the yoga is actually stresssful, (sometimes yoga is hard and I find that stressful), it still seems like my body will relax from it.
posted by gt2 at 11:44 PM on December 7, 2006

You didn't mention whether your girlfriend would be willing to try medication. I have suffered horribly from sleep problems, particularly when stressed from work. The lack of sleep makes the stress so much worse, it can be unbearable. I understand exercise and meditation work for a lot of people, but if they don't work for your gf or she doesn't always have time for them, the right medication could make a world of difference. Ambien and Lunesta did not work for me, but after some trial and error, I found something that did. I can say unequivocally that they have changed my life. Regardless of whether your gf is open to the idea of medication, it could be a good idea to talk to a counselor, especially someone who specializes in type-A personalities (there are a lot of these), who may have some ideas. Good luck to you and your girlfriend - not sleeping really sucks.
posted by walla at 2:44 AM on December 8, 2006

I struggled with this exact problem during the 4 years I worked full time in finance and went to law school at night.

Unfortunately, I used Ambien for a couple years and then Lunesta to deal with the fact that I had work/class until getting home at nearly 11pm and could NEVER "downshift". Ambien totally and Lunesta to some degree put me right to sleep, got my solid 8 hours and I was a lot happier.'s now been 5 years of sleeping medication daily (approved by the appropriate medical professionals all throughout) and I have extreme anxiety, depression, panic attacks and I absolutely cannot sleep without a combination of Lunesta and Xanax. This is BAD, I mean really bad. I hate it, and no medical professional or specialist has been able to help me kick it. See, the problem is I am type A and have some anxiety anyway so I could barely sleep even BEFORE law school and the downshifting problem. So I am terrified to stop taking sleeping medicine, because I do love my sleep.

My advice: try anything, and everything before sleeping meds, because while they will certainly help with the "downshifting" problem, one day classes will end and life's regular stresses will continue.

During the bar exam, my hunnie used to rub me down with lavendar lotion from head to toe every single night and then tuck me in with kind and loving chats and kisses. They make lavendar pillow sprays I heard are fabulous. I used to take lavendar baths while drinking chamomile tea. Also, I get the tummy aches from anxiety too, and Lemon and Ginger tea is great because the lemon is relaxing and the ginger is good for the tummy. I've tried 20 minutes or so of light yoga. Those muscle isolation relaxation things (now relax your foot, now relax your ankle and so on) just don't work for me, I get too impatient to relax my freakin' brain already. Red wine is always helpful, but doctors are adamant that more than one glass is bad as too much alcohol can cause rebound insomnia later in the night. I work really, really hard to think nice happy thoughts about puppies and love rather than focusing on the fact that I Still. Can't. Sleep. Quick naps during the day, 30 minutes in the afternoon, help reduce the tension later in the night when you feel like you'll only get 4 hours of sleep and that's never enough to get through 12 hours of work/class. You get the nap, which helps, and some ease-off of the pressure to get to sleep. Finally, a cool mist humidifier keeps the room cool and the air moist so I breathe better and can calm down and rest better - this has been a big help.

All of the above are needed even while I am still on sleeping pills that barely work anymore. I am really the queen of anxiety/tension based Type A insomnia, but if you try ALL of those things at once my guess is it will help.
posted by bunnycup at 10:56 AM on December 8, 2006

(P.S. Sorry the above is so long, it's just that this downshifting sleep problem is the story of my LIFE and I could go on for hours, my sympathy is endless because not sleeping when you have really long days is just the WORST. The end)
posted by bunnycup at 10:57 AM on December 8, 2006

A Quiet Mind podcast.
posted by JPowers at 11:24 PM on December 8, 2006

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