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Now a new study suggests that a simple 10-minute technique may reduce tension, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
The approach, designed to be done just before going to bed, involves mentally focusing on a serene and inviting place -- like the waves on a beach or a quiet lake surrounded by tall trees -- and slowly deep breathing.
"The technique builds on prior work that shows that stress negatively affects sleep," said Dr. Arn Eliasson, a research consultant with the Integrative Cardiac Health Project, a health promotion and cardiac risk reduction program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md. "There are a lot of well-known risk factors for cardiac disease -- like smoking, diabetes and high cholesterol, for example -- but less is understood about the issue of stress."
The study, scheduled for Oct. 22 presentation at the annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians, in Atlanta, suggests that the technique decreases the time it takes to fall asleep, improves the quality of sleep and reduces fatigue.
According to the U.S. National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, about 30 to 40 percent of adults have some symptoms of insomnia -- the inability to fall asleep or remain asleep -- within a given year, and about 10 to 15 percent of adults have chronic insomnia.
The research involved 135 men and 199 women with an average age of 56. All of the participants had either served in the military or were dependents of service members. A minority had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma.
The participants completed a 14-item questionnaire to measure the scope and degree of their perceived stress. They also responded to a survey about sleep quality that asks how long it takes them to fall asleep, the duration of their sleep, the frequency of their sleep disturbances, their use of sleeping medications and how often over the previous month fatigue affected their daytime activities.
Participants then attended a "Tension Tamer" program that included a 30-minute introductory workshop followed by a series of four 30-minute visits with a stress management specialist to practice the technique. After completion of the program, the two surveys were re-taken and compared.
The study showed that 65 percent of the participants improved their perceived stress by 6.6 points, but 34 percent worsened their stress levels by 4.6 points.
Those who reduced their stress showed significant differences in sleep quality, with less time necessary to fall asleep and decreased fatigue.
A sleep expert urged caution in interpreting the study.
"This is not a novel technique; it has a fancy name -- Tension Tamer -- but stress reduction has always had a role in helping people sleep," said Dr. Aparajitha Verma, medical director of the Methodist Hospital Comprehensive Sleep Disorders Program, in Houston. While Verma said that reducing stress in any way will clearly help, it's important to learn why people are having difficulty sleeping.
"My philosophy is that unless you get to the bottom of the cause, you won't be effective. There's always a reason why insomnia is there; it could be depression or mood problems, digestive issues, pain, medications and other factors," Verma explained. "Sometimes you have to be a detective to find the source of the problem."
While stress reduction is useful, Verma said it can only go so far. "It will help you fall asleep but will not ensure you get good-quality sleep, a problem in sleep apnea, for example."
Verma recommends that people commit to having a wind down time before bedtime to relax and shut off the issues and stimuli of the day. "You need to make sleep a priority in your life," she advised.
Because this study was presented at a medical meeting and not published in a peer-reviewed journal, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary.
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