steps to sleep

    Everyone acknowledges the critical role sleep plays in our well-being and the profound discomfort that arises from its deprivation. This article doesn't delve deeply into the intricate physiology of sleep deprivation but rather explores the mental landscape of insomnia, with physiology providing a backdrop.

    While occasional sleeplessness is common for many, enduring chronic sleep deprivation unveils the true toll of disrupted rest.

    Irrespective of its roots, the repercussions are profound. I recall a time when my infant was merely five months old; then, I couldn't manage more than three consecutive hours of sleep. Gradually, my once-vibrant body metamorphosed into one weighed down by fatigue, tension, and persistent discomfort. I often shivered when others complained of warmth, my eyes perpetually red and dry, lost in vacant stares. Even basic bodily functions like blinking and breathing faltered, necessitating conscious reminders. A bout of flu surprised me with its prolonged recovery, unlike my usual bounce-back within 24 hours. I noticed a decline in reaction time, concentration, focus, and memory. Simple decisions became arduous tasks.

    As a homeopath, I routinely inquire about clients’ sleep patterns, recognising sleep as one of the seven indicators of overall endocrine system function.

    In addressing sleeplessness, it's vital not to overlook the mind-body connection, fostering deeper healing.

    In Traditional Chinese Medicine, each hour of the day aligns with an organ system. Experiencing fatigue or weakness at specific times or waking consistently at particular hours signifies underlying pathology or weakness in corresponding systems, such as the liver between 01:00 and 03:00 and the kidneys between 17:00 and 19:00.

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    From a mental perspective, there appears to be a ‘switch' enabling us to release our busy minds. Some effortlessly navigate this function, while others, like insomniacs, grapple with incessant thoughts.

    TRUSTING THE PROCESS

    Stress is the most common factor leading to sleep pathology, and as stress has its origins in the mind, training the mind to cultivate tranquillity at will becomes a priceless endeavour.

    Stress increases our levels of circulating cortisol; the higher the cortisol, the less likely it is that we will be able to sleep peacefully. We are living stressful lives in challenging times, often with high levels of fear and anxiety, and it becomes increasingly difficult to trust that all will be okay since our general perception becomes one of needing to be in control at all times. Perhaps this is a coping mechanism that we acquired due to unnecessary stress and uncertainty during childhood. Learning to trust in life supporting us is an essential and basic skill. Trust is the antidote to the urge to control. Vigilantly scanning our environment for possible danger, we cannot imagine what will happen once we let go of our conscious control. For many people ‘letting go’ feels like relinquishing all power and control to chaos where things are simply allowed to fall apart.

    steps to sleep

    STRESS AND THE NERVOUS SYSTEM

    To accommodate a chronic state of anxiety the autonomic nervous system relies heavily on the sympathetic branch and the production of stress hormones such as adrenalin, noradrenalin and the long-term stress hormone, cortisol. Consequently the heart rate goes up, blood pressure increases, muscles tense, the tummy turns into a knot and the immune system takes a back seat.

    At this stage depression easily sets in and sleep becomes a luxury or even impossible! Fortunately this nervous system imbalance responds well to therapy. Craniosacral therapy, for example, applies specific pressure holds (hands-on holding positions of the skull and base of the spine) to induce a ‘still point’ in the craniosacral rhythm (the circulatory rhythm caused by the production and re-absorption of the cerebrospinal fluid). This brings the overactive sympathetic tone back into balance and changes beta brain wave frequency into theta brain wave frequency. It is during this theta brain wave state of mind that we experience deep relaxation, our bodies unwind and our innate healing mechanisms kick in.

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    Normal sleeping patterns are often the first to be restored. Beta brain wave frequency stimulates us into the awake and alert modus operandi that helps us function optimally during a working day, but without the ability to switch to a sleeping theta state we become dysfunctional and insomniac. Why would some of us then have trouble switching from beta to theta brain wave frequency, or remain in a predominant beta brain wave frequency? To surrender oneself to life is a challenge, and a life skill that may take years to develop. In Buddhist philosophy sleep is seen as a ‘mini death’. It involves the ability to let go completely.

    Not everyone can surrender peacefully with equal ease. Difficulty falling asleep or waking frequently during the night may be due to various causes, many of which are physiological, like feeling thirsty, needing the loo, pain, endocrine problems, medication and stimulants, to name but a few. This may set the busy background for an overly charged mind to spring into action. How often don't we find ourselves waking up gradually and even peacefully, but before we can turn over and drop off again, a ‘busy’ thought pops into our mind sending alert messages to the adrenals, and before we know it, we are busy solving problems, making plans, replaying events of the day or revising conversations in our heads. If we do this regularly, we train ourselves into a bad habit and indeed alter our biological clocks. This influences our pineal secretion of melatonin and leads to disturbed biorhythms. Instead of waking refreshed, we feel as if we've had a bottle of tequila the previous night!

    If you wake up regularly from general anxiety, seek out therapy to resolve subconscious issues. I suggest energy balancing and bodywork therapies in addition to counselling. Therapies such as shiatsu, kinesiology, craniosacral therapy and body stress release, as well as gentle exercise like yoga and tai chi, bypass the rational and analytical mind which is often the problem in the first place. Also try homeopathic or herbal treatment for anxiety and stress instead of resorting to sleeping tablets and anxiolytics. These have side-effects, are addictive and don't address the cause of the disrupted sleep cycle.

    CREATING SOUND SLEEPING HABITS

    Each task we engage in requires time, attention and energy. Make a list and prioritise daily tasks. Make sure to allocate enough time to complete each task one at a time. Think of each task as a circle. If left incomplete or open while you carry on with the next, these unfinished tasks remain in your subconscious mind during the day as a continuous energy leach. At night, as soon as our conscious mind is ready to drift off to sleep, subconscious matter tends to surface and keeps us awake. This is true for any thoughts, feelings or consciously unresolved issues.

    Think of your mind as your personal computer. When you have difficulty falling asleep or ‘switching off’ at night, visualise yourself clicking on the cross at the top corner of each file, closing each idea, project or concern in your mind one at a time. Make sure you do the same with your actual computer before going to bed. For those who are less digitally inclined, use the image of a large cupboard and close each drawer containing your thoughts, feelings and concerns. Labelling these one at a time creates distance and objectivity, which enables one to put them in a compartment to be dealt with later.

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    Aside from addressing the physical, for example making sure your sleeping area is quiet, dark and comfortable, as well as avoiding stimulants before bedtime, try the following steps to help you sleep: Teach the mind to switch off. With closed eyes become aware of your surroundings. Use your senses to bring your attention into the present moment. If there are any disturbing factors that you cannot change, make a conscious effort to let go and release these from your mind. Relax all your muscles one at a time. Become aware of your breathing. Make sure that you exhale completely and that your exhalation is longer than your inhalation.

    Do a mindfulness meditation whereby you clear your mind of all thoughts. Visualise your mind as an open clear sky. Thoughts drift by like clouds. Release the thoughts before they escalate into feelings. Finally, imagine yourself switching off the light inside your head and feel how your body becomes heavier and heavier, sinking into the bed beneath you. Feel your muscles melt like a wax candle in a warm oven. Allow yourself to surrender your need to control, organise, sort out, plan, worry, etc. Let go of any unwanted feelings and give yourself over to trust, reminding yourself that a good night's rest at worst helps you to look at things with a fresh perspective and at best often brings its own miraculous answers to problems.

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