woman asleep in bed

Q&A: How Can I Stop Work Stress from Interfering with My Sleep?

By Nicole Pajer
March 22, 2024

This article is part of a Q&A series in which a healthcare professional in our community answers your frequently asked questions. Here, we talked to Jared Minkel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist who develops digital therapeutics at Twill. Minkel shares some strategies for letting go of work stress so that you can sleep better.

We asked: "How can I sleep better when work is stressing me out?"

Jared Minkel, Ph.D.: Heading to bed feeling anxious, worried, or stressed is an automatic recipe for poor sleep. But the advice to “simply relax” is easier said than done.

As sleep specialists, we don’t worry much about short-term sleep problems due to stress. It’s normal for your sleep to be bad every now and then if you have the occasional stressful workday, for instance. But if you’re continuously lying awake at night stressing, then you’ll definitely want to make some changes.

Managing stress during the day is a good first step. Below are a few techniques to help you cope with work stress.

Get Active

Exercise is really good for managing stress—as long as it's not right before bedtime because exercise generally wakes you up. Studies have shown that a consistent exercise routine is associated with better sleep.

Talk It Out

Speak to a therapist who can provide you with some coping tools to help you deal with stress.

For instance, a therapist might help you to avoid catastrophizing—a way of thinking that exaggerates the negative into a worst-case scenario and can heighten feelings of anxiety and stress. Skills to bring worries back down to earth can include thinking about how likely a worry is to happen (most worries never come true), how bad it would be if it really did happen, and how you might handle it if the worry came true. Once you master these kinds of techniques, you can use them on your own.

For many people, stress and anxiety can make them feel alone. It can help to reach out to other people for support. It’s up to you if you want to talk to them about what’s stressing you out or just take a break and enjoy their company. Both can be effective.

Get Out of Bed

Many people spend a lot of time experiencing negative thoughts and emotions at night while lying in bed. Sometimes, it can be better to accept that you’re not going to fall asleep right now and then go do something pleasant for a bit and then go back to bed.

If you can’t fall asleep in a reasonable amount of time (about 20 minutes), try getting out of bed and doing something enjoyable, but low-key, like reading a book, listening to music, or flipping through a photo album. After about 30 minutes, then go back to bed and see if you sleep.

Don’t get up and respond to emails or do anything on your phone, however, as that can make sleep worse. You’ve probably heard about how blue light from phones can interfere with sleep, but it’s also the emotional content. Our phones are designed to move us toward emotionally provocative content (news and social media both elevate emotionally charged content). Emotions like anger and anxiety disrupt sleep just as much as blue light does.

Schedule Time for Worry

Keep a journal in which you write out the negative thoughts and worries that are on your mind. For each worry on your list, write down the very next step you’re going to do about it.

For example, you might write a way to fix the problem, or that it isn’t a big problem. Or you might jot down that you’ll need to talk to someone who can help you fix it. You might even write that there’s no solution to the problem. That way, if you start worrying about that issue in the middle of the night, you can remind yourself that you've already thought about it and will deal with it tomorrow.

Schedule your "worry time" for around dinnertime, not right before bed, so you aren’t thinking about your worries as you try to drift off to sleep.

Keep it to around 15 minutes and remind yourself about your scheduled worry time throughout the day. If a worry pops up outside this window, remember that you’ll give it your full attention later on. This frees you from worry for most of your day.

Sip Something Warm

You can try calming drinks, like chamomile or peppermint tea—anything that feels soothing to you. But of course, stick to decaf in the six hours before bedtime, since caffeine can affect your sleep. I usually tell people to avoid caffeine after lunch.

Be Skeptical of Supplements

I would avoid supplements, like melatonin, unless you talk to your doctor and they okay it. Melatonin actually moves your biological clock (depending on when you take it) so it can be good to help with jet lag, but it’s not that helpful for falling asleep at night.

Your body naturally releases melatonin at night, and there’s not much evidence that more would do anything helpful. Also, melatonin is not strictly regulated in the United States, so there have been reports of poor quality control, with the dose varying widely. Some melatonin supplements have even been found to have serotonin in them, which is considered a contaminant.

You’re much better off focusing on managing your stress levels so you can rest easier at night.

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