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How Sleep Helps Build Resilience


Written by Dr. Michael Breus

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Have you felt stressed out, anxious, or overwhelmed lately? Sometimes the world may feel like it’s out of control, and it can be a lot to handle. But even with all that on your plate, a little resilience can help you bounce back from the stress and keep on trucking.

We all face difficult times in our lives, and big or small, resilience can help you get through them all. Some people are more resilient than others though, and one reason for this is how often they get a good night’s sleep.

What is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to adapt and move forward in the face of adversity, trauma, or significant sources of stress. It’s a valuable trait to help get you through the tough times and bounce back from life’s challenges.

This isn’t the same as mental toughness though. Mental toughness is a combination of behaviors, emotions, and attitudes that help you overcome any hardships you experience, while also helping you stay focused and motivated when things are going well. 

While being mentally tough can help you avoid negative situations, being resilient is what helps you recover from them. Every person can demonstrate resilience and display coping skills that can help them recover from a stressful situation.

Why Is Resilience Important?

Resilience can help protect you against anything that can go wrong in your life. You’re human— things you don’t expect or desire just happen sometimes, so having that extra protective factor can be a huge help for any challenge you end up facing.

Here are a few reasons why it’s so important to be resilient:

  • Resilient individuals show increased physical health, and a lower rate of mortality
  • Improved learning skills and fewer absences at work or school
  • Reduced risk-taking behavior, such as substance abuse or reckless behavior
  • A greater ability to cope with and resist stress
  • Fewer depressive symptoms and more positive emotions

The Traits of a Resilient Person

Remember, resilience isn’t the same thing as being mentally or physically tough. Signs of inner strength and resilience can include:

  • The ability to manage your emotions and impulses, especially under pressure
  • Problem solving, communication, and memory skills
  • Good mental health
  • Maintaining a positive relationship with friends, family, and coworkers
  • Being able to make realistic plans, and stick to them
  • Healthy self-esteem, social skills, and confidence
  • Good health habits including proper diet, moderate exercise, and getting adequate sleep each night

A good night’s sleep is key to feeling your best each day, not only on a physical level but on an emotional one too. Sleep is also incredibly important for building resilience.

How Sleep Can Help or Hurt Your Resilience

Adequate sleep can build greater resilience and help you take on life’s stresses when they inevitably happen. As you likely already know, too much stress leads to poor sleep. 

During sleep, your brain processes each day’s events, forming memories and discarding any unnecessary information that may otherwise clutter your mind. Good sleep is vital for your brain to function properly, and it helps you keep a better handle on your emotions and impulses. 

By getting a good night’s sleep, you learn and process information more efficiently, and you’re able to find a good balance between emotional reaction and careful decision-making. This is how proper sleep can increase your resilience.

However, consistently poor sleep can affect your resilience in a number of ways, including:

  • Creating emotional imbalance, or making you more prone to conflict
  • Lack of empathy
  • Poor impulse control, or more potential for risky behavior
  • Negativity bias—more focus on negative events than positive— lower optimism or reduced self-esteem
  • Lack of creativity

Let’s look at some other events that may lead to disturbed sleep and reduced resilience. One big issue that results in poor sleep is trauma. Trauma of all kinds may impact how well you sleep, regardless of how big or seemingly small the trauma feels. 

Sleep and Resilience Following Traumatic Events

People who have lived through traumatic events such as natural disasters, domestic violence, or combat have endured more stress and adversity than many of us may ever know. Unfortunately, despite showing immense resilience in the face of trauma, sleep troubles like insomnia and nightmares are common afterward.

Here are a few examples of populations that have experienced significant trauma and the results that researchers discovered when looking at their overall response to sleep as a tool for recovering from traumatic events. 

Military Veterans and Active Service Members

Studies have found that developing psychological resilience may help active service members and military veterans cope with potential physical and mental health problems post-deployment. 

Veterans who sleep poorly are more likely to have endured traumatic events, which can be associated with worse physical and mental health, and lessened resilience. However, promoting healthy sleep within these groups may help them build resilience against the psychological distress they faced in the past, or may currently be facing if they are still deployed.

Domestic Violence Survivors

An adult enduring intimate partner violence (IPV) can suffer from many trauma-related sleep problems. Experiencing that trauma can impact children too.

One study found that 63 percent of children who were exposed to IPV towards their mothers experienced sleep problems. These children also displayed worse adaptive functioning than children without sleep problems.

Natural Disaster Survivors

A survey of survivors of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti found significant connections between sleep disturbances and traumatic distress after the disaster. 94 percent of respondents reported insomnia after the disaster, and even two years later, 42 percent showed significant levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 22 percent displayed symptoms of depression.

How to Build Resilience and Sleep Better

Sleep is a great tool for making yourself more resilient, and you can improve both with these very effective methods. Try some of these suggestions tonight and see how they make you feel.

1. Reduce Your Stress

Going to bed when you’re stressed out and anxious is a surefire way to wake up tired in the morning. Taking time to relax and unwind before bed can do wonders for your rest. Give some of these relaxation techniques a try— you may be surprised at how well they work for you!

  • Exercise: This is a great way to blow off some steam and help yourself relax after a long day. Just make sure you do it at least a few hours before bed, otherwise you might feel too energized to sleep!
  • Meditation or Breathing Exercises: Removing your focus from your stress and anxiety and placing it on your breath can be deeply therapeutic and help you fall asleep in a peaceful state of mind. Focus on slower, deeper breathing practices that relax you. Avoid fast-paced breathing that energizes you and may make going to sleep more difficult. 
  • Take a Warm Bath: A shower can work too, but I personally recommend a warm bath before bedtime. Baths can relax tense muscles and help you fall asleep faster. You can even add essential oils or relaxing music for added effect. This is most effective around 90 minutes before bedtime.
  • Sleep Journaling: Keeping track of your thoughts, feelings, and worries in a sleep journal can help you process your feelings and cope with them in a positive way. You can do this anywhere from a few hours to a few minutes before bed— whichever works best for you.

2. Make Changes Around the Bedroom

It’s important that your bedroom is set up to help you sleep well— after all, you can’t build resilience with sleep if you can’t sleep comfortably. Ideally, you want your bedroom to be dark, cool, and without extra noise that can keep you awake.

To create a dark sleeping environment, blackout curtains or an eye mask are great options. Blackout curtains can block ambient light from outside, including sunlight or city lights. Alternatively, wearing an eye mask can prevent any lights from inside your home from disturbing you as well. If there is a lot of light, for example, if you sleep during daylight hours, you may want to consider both.

A lot of sounds can keep you up at night, like a snoring bed partner, ambient noise from outside, or even noisy neighbors. To combat this, you have a few options. Earplugs are cheap, available pretty much anywhere and can help reduce intrusive sound, allowing you to sleep in blissful silence. A sound machine can help cover up other ambient sounds with peaceful white noise or nature sounds.

Last but not least, you want to make sure the temperature in your bedroom is comfortable for you to sleep in. This can be tricky if you and your bed partner have different preferences there, but there are ways to keep you both comfortable without fighting over the thermostat. You may want to invest in new pajamas, bedding, or a mattress ideal to your needs.

3. Follow a Sleep Routine

A consistent sleep routine is the foundation to a good night’s sleep. If it doesn’t already, make sure your updated sleep routine includes the following:

  • Aim for at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night.
  • Go to bed at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time every day— even on the weekends.
  • If you wake up during the night, don’t stay in bed— this can make it harder to get back to sleep. Instead, get out of bed and do something small. Walk around a little bit, read a book, or write in a journal until you feel ready to sleep again.

4. Get Tested for Sleep Disorders

A sleep disorder can wreak havoc on your rest and your resilience, so it’s important to get tested if you think you might have one. Important symptoms to keep an eye out for include:

  • Taking 30 minutes or more to fall asleep each night, or difficulty staying asleep
  • Waking up too early in the morning
  • Excessive sleepiness the following day
  • Loud snoring, gasping, or choking during sleep

Even if you don’t have a sleep disorder, it’s important to rule them out as a root cause of your sleep disturbance. If you do have a sleep disorder after getting tested, it’s vital to seek treatment for them. Your doctor or an area sleep expert can help you figure out what treatment will work best for you.

5. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you take any negative emotion you may be feeling— stress, anxiety, fear— and find ways to reframe those thoughts. By doing this, you can boost your mood, build resilience, and help yourself get a better night’s sleep.

One way to do this is through strengths-based cognitive behavioral therapy. This is designed to help you build and strengthen your resilience and can be used to build other positive qualities as well. There are four steps to this approach:

  • Search for Your Strengths: What do you already have that can help build your resilience? Are you in control of your emotions? Do you have a good relationship with your peers? Can you ask for help if you need it? Write those down!
  • Construct a Personal Model of Resilience (PMR): How can you apply your strengths to help yourself become more resilient? How do you handle difficulty in other parts of life? Can those strategies help you build resilience?
  • Apply Your PMR to Difficult Areas in Your Life: Consider common challenges in your life, and think about how your PMR can help you go with the flow, rather than solving or overcoming those challenges— this can help keep you from getting discouraged if you have something you have to endure, rather than solve.
  • Practice Resilience: Apply your PMR to difficult areas of your life and use these strategies to practice your resilience. Remember, the important thing here is to manage difficulties in life, not necessarily to overcome them.

Keep Going And Keep Trying To Get a Good Night's Sleep

Better sleep and increased resilience take effort, practice, and repetition. Keep trying and don’t give up!

Even when life is going great, there will always be a chance that things will go amiss. Resilience can help you find the inner strength you need to take on any potential threat, and overcome significant adversity when— not if— it arrives.

But an important part of staying resilient is making sure that you get enough sleep to keep yourself emotionally strong. Even if you’re feeling sleep-deprived and not resilient right now, taking those steps to improve both, every day, will help you feel so much better. 

A lot of people are struggling right now. If you’re one of them, take heart in knowing that you’re more resilient than you may feel right now. Just keep moving forward and do your best. Every effort builds a little more of the foundation.

About The Author

Dr. Michael Breus

Clinical Psychologist, Sleep Medicine Expert

Michael Breus, Ph.D is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. He holds a BA in Psychology from Skidmore College, and PhD in Clinical Psychology from The University of Georgia. Dr. Breus has been in private practice as a sleep doctor for nearly 25 years. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is also the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, Good Night!, and Energize!

  • POSITION: Combination Sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Hot Sleeper

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