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Sleep Well and Practice Mindfulness to Reduce Your Anxiety

For those who deal with anxiety and nervousness, help may be much easier than expected. Researchers from the University of California Berkeley recently found that deep sleep allows the brain to rest and recover in ways that help with everyday ongoing stress . In their study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the team found that nonrapid eye movement (NREM), which occurs in the deepest stages of sleep, is the key to reducing anxiety throughout the day.

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Lead author Eti Ben Simon of the university’s Center for Human Sleep Science said that not getting enough sleep makes existing anxiety even worse. His team used MRIs and polysomnography, among other tests, to look at the brain waves of study participants who might or might not have had sufficient rest the night before. What they found is that deep sleep has profound impacts on our stress levels the following day:

“Deep sleep had restored the brain’s prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety … the findings suggest that the decimation of sleep throughout most industrialized nations and the marked escalation in anxiety disorders in these same countries is perhaps not coincidental, but causally-related. The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night of sleep.”

In addition to mood disorders, lack of sleep can impact overall health. Previous researchers found a link between not getting enough sleep and getting sick. Without good sleep, optimal health may remain elusive, even if you eat well and exercise (although those factors will tend to improve your ability to sleep better). Sleeping well is one of the cornerstones of optimal health but, unfortunately, sleep deprivation is such a chronic condition these days that you might not even realize you suffer from it.

Memory problems, dementia and even Alzheimer’s have been associated with chronic lack of sleep. This is partly because of the role of cortisol in our fight-or-flight response when dealing with stressful situations. While helpful in urgent cases, the prolonged release of the steroid hormone can lead to problems with digestion, high blood pressure and weight gain in addition to mood disorders.

Getting enough exercise, eating healthy foods and actively engaging in mindfulness activities may help with stress during the day. A relatively new field in research, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques involve careful focus on the task at hand. When practicing mindfulness, we eliminate distractions — including worries about issues that are not directly in front of us   and are better able to handle our overall stress loads.

Practicing "mindfulness" means you're actively paying attention to the moment you're in right now. Rather than letting your mind wander, when you're mindful, you're living in the moment and letting distracting thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications.

In addition to the relief that’s felt from not being bogged down by anxiety, we can also enjoy significant cost savings when comparing the price of natural techniques to traditional prescriptions and interventions. One group of researchers estimated that the combination of meditation, yoga and stress reduction exercises could save the average patient between $640 and $25,500 a year.

For more information on how you can start on the road to medication-free stress management, see my previous article, “Meditation Actually Alleviates Stress.” Don’t stop taking your medications without talking to your doctor, though. 

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