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Conquer Stress and Master Sleep for a Richer Life

It’s no secret that when someone is tired, motivation and mood suffer and stress becomes more difficult to cope with. Feeling stressed may also make it harder for a person to get a good night’s sleep, which can create a vicious cycle.

Prioritizing healthy sleep habits and awareness of stress-management skills can help propel people to succeed in multiple ways, whether their goals are in business, academics or even fitness.

Staying well-rested not only can improve mood but can also keep people healthier, improve performance and cognition and boost coping and problem solving.

Keep reading to learn how to achieve balance and cultivate success by prioritizing sleep and dealing with stress more effectively.

Related: 3 TED Talks That Will Convince You to Get More Sleep 

Why sleep should be a top priority

Sleep often gets pushed aside by busy people. Dealing with a stressful schedule can make it harder to receive enough quality rest. 

It might feel sometimes like those extra two hours could be better spent working toward goals than wasted in dreamland, but the truth is that long-term sleep deprivation can result in significant cognitive and physical impairment.

An adult needs on average seven to nine hours of sleep each night. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, however, 30 percent of American workers receive only six hours a night or less. 

For a Surrey University study exploring mild sleep deprivation, researchers allowed participants about six hours of sleep a night for one week. After just seven days, they found more than 700 instances of changes in genes related to circadian rhythms and metabolism in addition to suppressed immune response and increased inflammation. 

According to the Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation book by the National Institutes of Health, a lack of sleep affects motivation and moods, decision-making abilities, cognition, attention, creativity and analytical thinking, memory and learning. It increases the likelihood of errors and accidents as well as the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It also impairs the immune system. 

When all these effects are considered, sleep deprivation clearly has a significant impact on people's ability to work toward their goals and perform at their best. Personally, I've found that staying healthy and keeping sleep and work in balance helps me avoid mental burnout. A reduced risk for illness also means perhaps less time will be taken away from achieving goals. 

Related: 8 Ways to Drive Entrepreneurial Stress Out From Your Life

Strategies for managing stress

For many people stress and anxiety serve as sleep stealers. Many individuals experience temporary insomnia before a big meeting or when dealing with a pressing issue. 

When it becomes habitual for someone to experience stress at night, though, this can create bigger sleep problems. And the lack of sleep can make it more difficult for the person to manage the stressors that can lead to frustration, anger, lack of motivation and more stress.

One of the best ways I've found to avoid stress-related sleep problems is to practice techniques for calming down and tuning out before bed.

A few stress-management strategies that have been found effective include deep breathing, visualization, music relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation and regular exercise. Many of these methods can be used at any time of the day and can also be helpful for falling asleep.

Deep breathing is a way to invoke physical relaxation and calm the body’s stress response. The Harvard Medical School’s Family Health Guide website suggests sitting or lying down in a comfortable place with the eyes closed. Start breathing in slowly through the nose, letting the abdomen fully expand. Then breathe out slowly through the mouth or nose. The breaths should become progressively deeper. Focus attention on the very process of breathing or a calming image or phrase.

Visualization or using guided imagery is a proven technique that involves immersing one’s self into an imagined scene. Self-help books, online videos, recordings and therapists can help people practice this technique. It involves lying in a comfortable place with closed eyes and imagining a relaxing scene. The person is guided to see, hear, feel and smell the surroundings while keeping his or her thoughts on the image and continuing to relax. An Oxford University study found visualization helped people fall asleep faster, as well.

Music relaxation involves tuning in to calming music while in a relaxed state. As with the other techniques, the person begins by lying or sitting in a comfortable space with eyes closed and breathing calmly.  A University of Nevada, Reno, counseling website says that slow-tempo music with about 60 beats a minute helps stimulate relaxing brain waves. The website provides a few samples of appropriate music: Recommended types include Native American and Celtic music, light jazz, classical or easy listening music -- whatever can induces a calm and relaxed state in a listener.

Progressive muscle relaxation involves gradually relaxing each part of the body. As the American Holistic Nurses Association website explains in detail, this technique involves tensing a specific group of muscles for several seconds while breathing in, then relaxing these muscles while breathing out. The person works on each major muscle group progressively, from the feet to the head, while focusing fully on releasing tension and anxiety.

Regular exercise and activity releases mood-boosting chemicals that help fight stress. According to the American Psychological Association, people who exercise regularly report less anxiety and depression. The release of norepinephrine potentially helps the brain moderate stress responses. Endorphins also provide a short-term mood boost. Another benefit of regular exercise is that it may improve sleep efficiency and sleep duration, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Additional possible ways to relax include practicing yoga, doing meditation or praying, journaling, writing down tomorrow’s to-do list or reading -- things that help a person wind down and clear  stressful thoughts.

Things to avoid in the hours before bed include doing work, writing emails, messaging on social networks, checking bank accounts or paying bills (or any other activity that might induce stress).

Also avoid stressing about not getting enough sleep. Keep thoughts positive at night. Rather than saying, “I can’t believe it’s already midnight! I’m going to be so tired tomorrow,” start an internal dialogue with something that's more like “I will fall asleep and wake up well-rested tomorrow!”

Pairing an emphasis on healthy sleep with effective stress-management techniques helps prevent emotional and physical exhaustion and keep the mind in top shape to tackle challenges. By taking care of yourself and keeping sleep, stress and work balanced, it's possible to achieve goals and be more successful.

What helps you balance work and health? How do you reduce stress? Share your experiences below. 

Related: 6 Secrets to Surviving on Little or No Sleep