by Andrew Pacholyk MS L.Ac
The National Sleep Foundation has found that 30 – 40% of adults experience insomnia. The most common cause for this is no surprise. It’s stress. Stress seems to be the number one reason we find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep at night. Fears about finances, family, or work situations are apart of this equation. Of course, traumatic life events, such as loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or having to move or relocate are the top three.
So how do we tune out so that we can tune in to sleep? Believe it or not, your body knows how to rest. When you are tired, chemical reactions send sensory impulses to the brain which allow your body to respond and relax. When external stimuli keep the brain active, it will continue to respond to the stimuli. These stimuli can be a fixation with our phones, pets in the bedroom, or even light streaming in through the windows.
Some patients of mine have reported actually having a fear around bedtime. The fear came in the form of them being afraid that they wouldn’t fall asleep that night. This anxiety alone, is enough to keep you awake, especially when it becomes an actual phobia. Another percentage of these patients believed that they had something wrong with them. They believed they manifested this insomnia and that they may never be able to fall asleep without the help of sleeping pills.
Insomnia is not a disease. It is a syndrome or condition. We all have trouble falling asleep now and then. It can be rectified. The adage that your body needs 8 hours of sleep can really depend on the body. We are all different. We come from different backgrounds, environments, and genes. Some people need 7 – 8 hours of sleep to feel rested, while others may only need 5 -6 hours to be able to function properly. There are no one-size fits all sleeping routines, so you can nix that belief. Your body will dictate when you’re tired and send cues to your brain to rest. Take the cue. You’ll be better for it.
What is important is that you set a routine that works for you.
Are you a morning person or a night owl? Do you sleep best after you’ve worked out that day or had a productive work schedule? Do you work nights or have a regular 9 – 5 job? What is your eating schedule? All of these habits play apart in your sleep routine. It is important for you to become more observant of your routines in order to build a better sleep regimen. Establishing this pattern will help to ensure you catch the zzzz you need.
Unfortunately, we cannot command the brain to stop working, as there is no switch to turn it on and off, but what we can do is retrain or rewire the way in which we treat the process. Remember, almost everything we do is a learned response. The routine of sleep is no different. When we learn something, we send our brain cues or signals that remind us of the procedure we have to go through in order to make something happen. With sleep, it is a matter of programming your brain to follow the routine to its restful, peaceful end.
If you are facing a traumatic experience in your life, trying to avoid it or distract yourself from it is not a solution. What you should consider doing is facing the situation head on. Journaling is a great way to get your fears out of your mind and on paper. Express in your journal what your situation is. What are the problems you need to overcome? How can you come to terms with the issue and start to solve or move forward from the complications you are facing? Write it down and then let it rest in your journal, not in your mind for the rest of the night. You can face it tomorrow and unravel the riddles, which need solving from a fresh perspective.
Set a time each night that you start preparing for bed. It maybe turning off your phone or taking a shower. It can be the process of closing the blinds and turning down the bed. Maybe you enjoy some aromatherapy diffused in the room or lightly sprayed on your bed linens.
Perhaps you want to place a good book you’ve been interested in reading next to your bed or set a sound machine timer with your favorite effects. Change into pajamas and cover your feet so they are warm. Whatever your routine, make it into a nightly pattern that you follow. Especially, if you are having difficulty falling asleep.
Since we can’t turn off the brain physically, we can bring our awareness from the mind to the body. Getting into your body can be done as easily as following the breath and using deep breathing to bring attention to the rise and fall of your chest. Close your eyes and take your focus to the center between your eyebrows. Sense how deeply you can take a breath all the way down to your navel as you slowly exhale. Keep this rhythm going as you slowly try to lengthen each deep breath.
If you do not feel tired, don’t just lie there staring at the ceiling. Use a suitable distraction, such as reading your book or listening to your sound machine with your eyes closed. Your body will eventually start following the commands you are giving it.
Defining your awake time and your sleep times are important. This classical conditioning, which is learning to associate an unconditioned stimulus (lying in bed) that already brings about a particular response (eventual sleep) with a new conditioned stimulus (our new sleep routine), so that the new stimulus brings about the same response. This is called the Pavlovian response. When we retrain ourselves to follow certain cues we give ourselves to sleep, we learn to respond to these indications.
Now, it’s off to dreamland.
Andrew Pacholyk MS LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist, certified herbalist, and award-winning author of Barefoot: A Surfer’s View of the Universe and Lead Us To A Place: your spiritual journey through life’s seasons. He is the founder and CEO of Peacefulmind.com