Reducing stress can bring a better night's sleep
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Lisa Cheater used to have so much trouble getting to sleep that she was afraid to go into her bedroom.
"I would walk in the room and see my bed, and my heart would just start pounding," she said, "because I would start having panic attacks just thinking about trying to go to bed."
She's hardly alone. According to the National Sleep Foundation, Americans are getting desperate for sleep, and about one in five struggle with insomnia nearly every night.
The consequences can be severe, including loss of memory and concentration, a weakened immune system and constant fatigue. And government researchers estimate that 100,000 car accidents a year are caused by tired drivers.
Sleeplessness related to stress
In Cheater's case, anxiety and depression were pinpointed as the source of the problem.
"The most common problem with sleeplessness, or not getting enough sleep at night, is stress," said Dr. Russell Rosenberg, director of Northside Hospital Sleep Medicine Institute in Atlanta.
Good ways to manage stress include exercising during the daytime and dealing with problems as they come up rather than internalizing them, Rosenberg said.
He recommends that people with anxiety take 20 minutes or more before bedtime to write their worries down on 3-by-5-inch cards. Then, at the bottom of the cards, they should write down what they can do about those worries.
The approach worked for Cheater.
"I found I was better helped by 'journaling' my prayers. So I would sit and I would write those things out before I went to bed, and they would be gone and I wouldn't worry about them," she said.
Medication, counseling may help
For some people, the fight to control anxiety may even require a change in lifestyle, such as prescription drugs or counseling, experts explained.
Behavioral strategies can help, including not drinking too much caffeine and avoiding alcohol at bedtime.
"What we really have to do is to protect that nighttime and make sure you get eight hours of sleep," Rosenberg said.
There are natural treatments, such as melatonin, kava or valerian root, but experts disagree over how well they work, especially for long-term treatment.
Over-the-counter sleeping pills, most of which contain diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl, also can help people sleep. But users often wake up groggy, and if they are used too often, the drugs lose their effectiveness.
For insomnia caused by illnesses such as sleep apnea or chronic pain, Rosenberg said the first step is to treat the disease as well as possible.
Most important, get professional help if your sleeplessness persists.
"It's important that after you've tried for a few weeks on your own, if it doesn't go away, then it's really time to see your primary care doctor or family physician and deal with the problem," Rosenberg said.
These days, Lisa Cheater manages her stress and sticks to a daily routine. She may not sleep as soundly as her dog Chelsea, but she sleeps well enough to feel healthy and rested during the day.
Poll: Americans working more, sleeping less
Northside Hospital Sleep Medicine Institute
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