Trouble sleeping…work stress? Research and creatives’ insights.

By Patricia Bouweraerts (updated Nov. 18)

Health and sleep specialists say that more than three-quarters of Americans have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at least a few times a week, that stress interferes with sleep, and the second highest stressor is work.

Derek Graziano Image

Derek Graziano playing a handmade dulcimer in Asheville, North Carolina on Nov. 27, 2015. Photos by P. Bouweraerts

Making matters worse, most workplaces do not include sleep health as part of wellness programs.

However, historians, yoga specialists, and creative artists and musicians have some interesting insights to share about sleep. Their knowledge comes from unique perspectives and may be especially useful in a country where so many are worried about not getting enough rest.

Employee wellness programs often forget sleep problems

“Only 20 percent of adults say the quality of their sleep is very good or excellent,” according to a 2013 study by the American Psychological Association (APA).

The APA also released a survey report in 2015 naming the four top stressors for Americans in top-down order as money, work, family responsibilities and health concerns. In the 2013 Stress in America™ survey by the APA, researchers showed relationships between stress levels and the quality of sleep.

“Adults with high stress are more likely to say they are not getting enough sleep because their minds race (49 percent versus 10 percent of adults with low stress),” according to a press release of

Workplaces have yet to catch up in recognizing the importance of sleep on overall health.

“In our research, we are currently examining sleep in workplace wellness, and finding that a majority of worksites offer wellness programs for their employees but few programs incorporate programming that is focused specifically in sleep health,” said Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the New York University School of Medicine.

Most often the programs concentrate on a narrower range of topics.

“The major focus areas of wellness are on exercise and nutrition, but sleep health is central to motivation for other health behaviors,” Robbins added. “In addition, healthful sleep is linked to productivity and creativity. Without sleep health employees are operating below their potential.”

A majority of worksites offer wellness programs for their employees but few programs incorporate programming that is focused specifically in sleep health.

Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D.

The scientific connection between sleep and creativity

Scientists have completed several studies connecting rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep to the ability for finding associations between things that are distantly related, creative thinking.

Researchers from the University of California at San Diego, and the University of Southern California released the results of their REM sleep study in 2009. The research was conducted by Denise Cai, Sarnoff Mednick, Elizabeth Harrison, Jennifer Kanady and Sara Mednick.

“This study shows that compared with quiet rest and non-REM sleep, REM enhances the integration of unassociated information for creative problem solving, a process, we hypothesize, that is facilitated by cholinergic and noradrenergic neuromodulation during REM sleep,” they wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Further, the question then arises, what about the other way around? Can creative right-brain activities help people sleep?

The left hemisphere of the brain oversees verbal language, writing, logic and many mathematical skills. Alternately, the right hemisphere leads in estimating spatial relationships, comprehending shapes, musical concepts and facial recognition.

“My life is utilizing the creative process — in a way the work stresses that I have are when outside forces keep me from being able to spend creative time building or playing music,” said Derek Graziano, luthier and lapidarist. “At times I can’t sleep for weeks because I’m just feeling that inspired and need to create. While at other times playing the guitar for 15 minutes can really change my state of being at the end of the day to be more calm.”

He said that being aware of your creative mind helps relieve stress.

“So yes, the only reason people are stressed is that they don’t get to/let themselves spend time with their creative mind/life force,” he said. “Which I think is the only thing worth pursuing with our time here. So many get too caught up in the distraction that they’re coerced somehow into feeling as though they are not allowed to engage with that process of life. It’s a shame, it’s why I do what I do. Trying to get others to want to explore their creative ambitions.”

Derek Graziano Playing Dulcimer Image

Derek Graziano playing a handmade dulcimer in Asheville, North Carolina on Nov. 27, 2015. Graziano’s website is

Other creative professionals agree.

A question was posted on Quora, “When I have a problem at work, it really affects my sleep. Does anyone have a practical solution for switching off?

Artist Jack De Valois’ answer described meditation, breathing exercises, exercise, getting rid of laptops and phone screens in bed, and “a good music session.”

An additional answer was contributed by Doug Stevenson, psychic, who wrote that De Valois is already an artist and therefore may have missed creativity because it’s too close to him.

“I can add; try water color painting, with a sketch pad from a dollar store,” Stevenson wrote. “A good relaxing hobby before bedtime often helps. Talk to yourself as you paint, as if you are teaching your own self how to expand your ideas of painting. The idea is the creativity does help to relax both the conscious minds, or depending on the person, the conscious mind and subconscious mind. …Painting is actually meditation done.”

He also introduced the idea of lucid dreaming, a concept where you are aware that you are dreaming and are able to control some aspects of the dream.

Self-suggestion has benefited some who have trouble sleeping

Jerry Jaran is a retired sign maker, now artist and musician who writes about health and sleep on In March, he responded to a question asking for fellow readers’ strategies to unhook from unresolved work issues before bedtime.

“We know brainstorming while trying to go to sleep is not good and at times difficult to turn off,” he wrote. “Try clearing your mind before bed with a no-thought meditation and then upon closing your eyes say silently that you will go to sleep and wake up at dawn feeling refreshed and well. Then avoid thinking. This auto suggestion will help (you) to fall asleep.”

Sleep helps detach memories from stressful emotions

In a February Time article, Alice Park interviewed Mathew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Scientists have long known that sleep is important for memory,” wrote Park. “But it turns out that during sleep, especially the cycles of deep dream sleep, the brain doesn’t just revisit the events of a day in a more organized way. It also works on processing the emotions attached to these recollections. When a memory is filed away during sleep, it’s also stripped of some of the powerful feelings — like fear, grief, anger or joy — that might have clouded the experiences in the heat of the moment.”

Professor Walker said in the Time article that about a week of sleep is needed to even out a troubling emotional memory.

Also, during sleep, short term memories are placed into long term memory files, said Dr. Andrew Weil and Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., in their 2007 book “Healthy Sleep.”

They added that working out uncomfortable or negative emotions from the day prior to bedtime can help to settle these troubling happenings before the brain tries to deal with them as nightmares. Weil’s and Naiman’s advice is to embrace problems and let them go before the night. Further, Naiman doesn’t use the terminology of “going to sleep,” but rather “letting go of waking.”

Shiftwork and sleep hours

Bruce Oliver and Jim Dillingham of Shiftwork Solutions LLC conducted a study of more than 20,000 shift workers, published in Occupational Health and Safety.

In “Warding Off Sleepiness,” they researched how shift schedules affect sleep problems.

“In line with results reported by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, the survey showed a one-hour delay in morning shift start times (from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.) increased worker sleep and improved waking alertness during the shift,” reported Jennifer Anderson on

The optimal range for nightly sleep is between seven and nine hours, wrote health and wellness researcher Jim Dillan in his article “Why is Sleep so Important to Your Physical and Mental Health?

“I personally find around seven hours best for me most of the year,” he wrote. “In winter it’s closer to eight where it’s normal to sleep a little longer. Going to bed earlier seems to be better as your cortisol levels are normally at their lowest by 11 p.m. and it’s easiest to get to sleep before then. You actually want to be already in bed and asleep by this time to benefit from this natural rhythm of your body’s chemistry.”

Sleep Infographic With Data From Article Text

Infographic by Patricia Bouweraerts

Light hampers sleep, but maybe not as much as noise

Many sleep experts have said that the light from cell phones, laptops and tablets will hamper circadian rhythms and interfere with sleep.

“Neuroscience research has also revealed the brain circuity governing circadian rhythms, the biological clock that synchronizes sleepiness and wakefulness with night and day,” according to a press release posted on

Beth Israel Deaconess scientist Thomas Scammell said in the ScienceDaily article that using electronic devices before sleep signals to the brain that there is daylight present, resulting in the body’s internal clock being reset. That makes it more difficult to wake up in the morning.

However, Duke University researchers released a study in February concerning light and the body’s circadian rhythms. They found that the villagers of Mandena, Madagascar — who have not been exposed to artificial light — sleep less than average adults in the U.S., but had stronger circadian rhythms. Villagers also spent less time in the dream stage of sleep, REM sleep.

Their natural circadian rhythms made them tired and ready for sleep, but crowded housing in the village and uninsulated structures of bamboo and tin roofs were so loud that noise woke them.

Due to their stronger circadian rhythms, though, their sleep patterns were more consistent, and villagers said that they were happy with their sleep. They also sometimes took one-hour naps during the day.

Breathing techniques have been advised for stress relief and sleep

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is sometimes called the relaxing breath exercise.

“Pranayama is a Sanskrit term that describes the regulation of breathing to achieve health benefits,” wrote Jonathan Thompson on “An ancient Indian practice, pranayama involves the manipulation of breath with three phases — inhalation, retention and exhalation. A study published in the January 2014 ‘Journal of Diagnostic Research’ linked both fast and slow types of pranayama to reduced stress and improved cognition, including attention, retention as well as speed in tasks that merge vision and physical action, such as playing video games. Several types of breathing exercises can be considered pranayama, including breathing techniques used in yoga and the 4-7-8 breathing exercise.”

He wrote that advocates of this breathing exercise practice the technique at least twice a day, and over time the sequence may help people breath more deeply in general, lesson anxiety, and reduce pain or blood pressure.

“The numbers in the name — 4-7-8 — refer to the counts when breathing in, holding your breath and exhaling,” he wrote. “Start by sitting up straight in a comfortable position. Next, place the tip of your tongue on the ridge of your gums, just behind your upper front teeth. Expand your diaphragm and slowly inhale through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for another count of seven. Open your mouth slightly, keeping your tongue in place, and exhale for eight counts. Repeat this cycle four times.”

Thompson writes that breathing exercises are mostly considered safe, although he cautions that people with some types of physical or mental health conditions should first talk with their doctor or therapist.

Be gentle with yourself

During the first half of the night, you get more deep rest sleep. For the second half of the night, you get more dream sleep, Weil and Naiman said in their book.

If a person wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about a stressful event, their advice is not to sweat over how much time is left before the work day begins. Weil and Naiman said that one night short on sleep won’t do too much harm and is fairly easy to recover from.

Further, some researchers believe that it is normal to wake at night for an hour or so.

Without artificial light for up to 14 hours each night, (Thomas) Wehr’s subjects first lay awake in bed for two hours, slept for four, awakened again for two or three hours of quiet rest and reflection, and fell back asleep for four hours before finally awakening for good.

A. Roger Ekirch, Ph.D.

History and “night watch,” waking in the middle of night

One finding in the Duke study was that the Mandena villagers were awake for one to two hours before returning to a second period of sleep.

A. Roger Ekirch is a professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and has written books about American and European history, as well as the history of sleep. He examines historical evidence, writing that before the Industrial Revolution, people slept for two blocks of time each night, separated by a one- to two- hour period of wakeful rest.

Ekirch’s 2005 book, “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past,” addressed the topic of “night watch,” this period of wakefulness between first and second sleep in preindustrial eras.

“Had preindustrial families not stirred until dawn, remaining instead asleep, many visions of self-revelation, solace, and spirituality would have perished by the bedside — some lost in the throes of sleep, others dissipated by the distractions of a new day…,” Ekirch wrote on page 322 of his book.

If they would not have been able to reflect on new insights in the middle of the night, morning tasks might have made dreams and their meanings harder to remember.

“Instead, the habit of awakening in the middle of the night, after one’s first sleep, allowed many to absorb fresh visions before returning to unconsciousness,” he wrote.

Another researcher, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Dr. Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment to see whether people could return to the two periods of sleep of their ancestors. He theorized that modern civilization has compressed time for sleeping into convenient single eight-hour time blocks.

He simulated mid-winter lighting conditions for research participants, with 10 hours of “day” and 14 hours of “night.”

“When normal individuals were transferred from a conventional 16-hour photoperiod to an experimental 10-hour photo-period, their sleep episodes expanded and usually divided into two symmetrical bouts, several hours in duration, with a one–three hour waking interval between them,” Wehr wrote in the abstract of his study.

He also found that it took longer to fall asleep — up to two hours.

Ekirch commented on Wehr’s studies in his book, “At Day’s Close.”

“Without artificial light for up to 14 hours each night, Wehr’s subjects first lay awake in bed for two hours, slept for four, awakened again for two or three hours of quiet rest and reflection, and fell back asleep for four hours before finally awakening for good,” Ekirch wrote. “Significantly, the intervening period of ‘non-anxious wakefulness’ possessed ‘an endocrinology all its own,’ with visibly heightened levels of prolactin, a pituitary hormone best-known for stimulating lactation in nursing mothers and for permitting chickens to brood contentedly atop eggs for long stretches of time. In fact, Wehr has likened this period of wakefulness to something approaching an altered state of consciousness not unlike meditation.”

Prolactin also supports nerve cell generation, neurogenesis. A raised level of this hormone was found in study participants through the night, including the wakeful period.

“Unless distracted by noise, sickness, or some other discomfort, their mood was probably relaxed and their concentration complete,” Ekirch added. “In fact, the force of some visions — their impact intensified by elevated levels of the hormone prolactin — might have kept nighttime vexations at bay. After the moment of awakening, there also would have been ample time for a dream to ‘acquire its structure’ from the initial ‘chaos of disjointed images.’”

Ekirch wrote that when Wehr’s subjects awakened, it was more often following REM.

“What’s more, Thomas Wehr has found, ‘transitions to wakefulness are most likely to occur from REM periods that are especially intense,’ typically accompanied by ‘particularly vivid dreams’ distinguished by their ‘narrative quality,’ which many of the subjects in his experiment contemplated in the darkness,” Ekirch wrote.

(About night watch) In fact, in many traditions — Kabbalah is one that I’m familiar with — this middle of the night time is considered a very sacred and a time of great potential spiritually. The belief is that the boundary between the waking world and the sleeping world, or the boundary between the earth and the heavens, becomes much more permeable at this time, and any kind of spiritual practices then would have a greater potency. So we need to be careful not to judge all awakenings as being insomnia.

Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., in the book, Healthy Sleep

Being awake for a time at night may be OK

Because REM sleep helps people to think more creatively, perhaps waking up to think about unique solutions for the day’s problems might be efficient, or dreams might help one connect to imaginative approaches. But at present, most of us would like to sleep for a single block of seven-eight hours, and have the night be a respite from major concerns such as money and work, or other stressors.

Health and wellness writers have suggested that keeping a notebook on the nightstand is useful for jotting down ideas to work out later, in the light of day.

This practice may free up a sleep-weary individual for relaxing … perhaps with breathing practices — or artistic thoughts, a poem, maybe design a perfect dream home in the mind’s eye — or simply appreciating the “quiet night of quiet stars.”


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