Sleeping Well in Hard Times

What You Can Do to Avoid Sleep Problems and Rest More Easily

Medically Reviewed by Stuart J. Meyers, MD
4 min read

Watching coverage of world events, we find ourselves virtually on the battlefield, in real time, round the clock. The images and scenes are vivid, intense, and seemingly everywhere. Adding that to the seemingly endless stresses of everyday life may cause sleep problems for many.

In times of conflict and stress, anxiety runs high, and many of us have problems falling asleep and staying asleep. In a poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, those surveyed were more likely to rate their sleep as fair/poor on nights immediately following the attacks compared with a typical night. They were also more likely to have experienced symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights a week. Troubling dreams and nightmares were not uncommon as well.

Stress-related insomnia may be transient, lasting a day or two, or it may be short-term, lasting two to three weeks. In either case, sleep should return to normal with resolution of the stress.

The consequences of sleep problems go beyond feeling anxious, fatigued, and sleepy, because poor sleep can significantly impact our mood, energy, concentration, and performance. So what can we do to sleep more soundly? We can take action to reduce anxiety and make lifestyle choices that support sound sleep.

Getting reassurance that sleep problems or temporary insomnia is a natural response to stress and that it will be resolved is often quite helpful.

Simply sharing your thoughts, feelings, and experiences with someone can reduce the anxiety and stress that intrude upon our sleep. Those with whom you have an established relationship may prove most helpful and may include a friend, clergy, or perhaps a therapist.

Keeping a stress-relief journal has been shown to be quite effective for many. Record the stresses daily, and then create a solution and action plan. Getting things out of your head and on paper clarifies issues and feelings, allowing you to understand better what is upsetting you and get a sense of control that reduces anxiety.

Participating, doing something -- no matter how small -- can provide a sense of meaning and purpose that decreases the feelings of a lack of control and the anxiety they cause. You may wish to make a donation of time and/or money, help others, join a rally, or speak out in some way.

Even in times of low stress we may not always make the best lifestyle choices to get sound sleep. So-called "sleep hygiene," or sleep habits, has a tremendous impact on our sleep, and their effects are magnified when living through highly stressful situations So paying careful attention to them now is very important.

Basic sleep hygiene, particularly in relation to temporary insomnia includes:

  • Consistently going to bed and waking up at the same times.
  • Avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bedtime.
  • Avoiding excessive daytime napping.
  • Consistently sleeping seven to eight hours a night, without daytime napping, regardless of fatigue or sleepiness, is critically important. Sleeping beyond your normal time or taking naps disrupts your natural circadian rhythm, or 24-hour cycle, and actually reinforces nighttime sleep difficulty.

The images, sounds, and thoughts that bombard us during the day may play out in our sleep as nightmares. These dreams may be particularly vivid and intense, waking us up in a jolt, with our eyes wide open and heart pounding.

Treatments include reassurance from others, behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, or even medications that suppress REM (rapid eye movement sleep), when dreaming takes place.

Guided imagery has also proven effective. Here you essentially review your nightmare in detail but change the content to something desirable. This can greatly relieve the stress associated with the dreams and provide a sense of control.

Another technique involves a desensitization process, in which you are repeatedly asked to think specifically about those dreams or events that cause stress, in an effort to build a tolerance to them. The idea is that as you are repeatedly confronted with the stressful situation and do not experience ill or untoward effects, you no longer associate fear and anxiety with them.

Originally published April 3, 2003.
Medically updated Oct. 21, 2004.

SOURCE: Sleep Medicine, Kryger, Meir, et al., Third Edition, 2000.

Copyright 2004 Sound Sleep, LLC.