-2 AM Knows All My Secrets
Insomnia happens if we develop unhealthy habits around the ways we think about sleep. When we put pressure on ourselves to go to sleep, our brain’s reaction is that something is wrong. What do we do if something’s wrong? We stay awake. Maintaining a consistent wake time is key.
The current research on sleep is exciting, to say the least. New discoveries are made more frequently and are providing us with new knowledge to better tackle this thing called sleep. Firstly, as we have already established, sleep is essential for basic physiological operations. I think we can all agree on this. You will be hard-pressed to find even one benefit of not getting a good night’s rest. With the onset of the Covid-19 virus in 2020, we have all become much more aware of the importance of our immune system and its role in helping us fight off such viruses. So, it’s important to note that our immune system is most active during sleep. Yet another reason to prioritize our sleep.
By now, we’ve learned how critical sleep is to our overall well-being and we’ve explored some powerful new strategies to take control and prioritize sleep. Despite using some of these techniques, though, at first it may seem like old patterns of sleeplessness keep repeating. How long does it take for this stuff to actually work?
Let’s look at this from a different perspective. Consider the following: what occurs during the day absolutely affects what occurs during the night when you’re asleep.
Your emotional state during the day may be contributing to this continued pattern at night. For example, many who experience repetitive night disruptions report that they often feel a sense of hyperarousal during their waking hours; they are always ready for something bad to possibly happen. The sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response) seems to be stuck in overdrive, constantly activating survival mode.
According to clinical psychologist Edward Selby, “…negative emotional experiences during the day can contribute to nightmares made worse by two processes.”
First is rumination; going over things again and again in your mind. Rumination keeps the pain of those negative experiences fresh. Originally derived from old English, to ruminate means to chew again what has been chewed slightly and swallowed. To aid in the digestion process, cows are known to swallow and un-swallow grass. This process is called ‘chewing the cud.’ This re-chewing and re-swallowing can be called rumination. So when we ruminate, we bring up our charged emotional thoughts over and over.
The second process is catastrophizing, where you imagine the worst possible outcome of a situation or consider a situation as much more serious than it really is. Doing this on a consistent basis may lead to nightmares because your brain tries to manage these emotions during sleep.
Today, we live in an era of rampant distraction. It seems like we’re surrounded by more and more noise every day. When you’re in a fog, you can’t see. The air around you is made up of thousands upon thousands of small drops of water, gently reflecting the light. Fog is visual noise that inhibits our depth of vision and perspective. The noise that surrounds us on a daily basis has a similar effect – limiting our ability to see aspects of our lives and the world clearly.
Ruminating and catastrophizing are often a result of too much background noise, and not enough focused attention on what we consider essential.
If “focused attention” is ringing a bell, then know that one of the benefits of a meditation practice is reduced insomnia.
Amongst this noise, we can find ourselves having a hard time judging what is most important. Usually, the things that are most important are also the things that we are uniquely suited to do. Our important work manifests in the places that feel personal, places like our most immediate relationships and commitments. Our most important work can also feel threatening because it requires the highest level of vulnerability and the risk of failure. That’s what happens when we courageously engage in the process of realizing our potential. Grounding ourselves by focusing on what matters most can filter out all the distractions that tend to pop up the moment you try to start winding down for the night.
On to insomnia.
Insomnia is defined by an individual’s difficulties with sleep. These may include finding it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep, or waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep. This leads to tiredness during the day and ends up being a vicious cycle. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. As many as 90% of Americans claim to suffer from some form of sleep insomnia.
Why do so many suffer from this? Is it only based on daytime ruminating and catastrophizing?
That’s part of it, but there are a number of other contributing factors, including familial history, a stressful or traumatic event, or even changes to our schedule. At this point, we may start to ruminate on these stressors and begin to think about sleep differently than we did before the stressful event took place. We may worry throughout the day that we won’t sleep well that night and feel upset about the harmful impact sleeplessness will have on health or quality of life. Eventually, these thoughts, emotions, and sleep behaviors will turn into habits. They have now become the primary reason for your ongoing insomnia, even long after the original stressful event has ended.
These are some common ruminations I hear as a Health Coach: “If I don’t get some sleep, tomorrow will be a complete write-off!” “Tonight I will try extra hard to fall asleep.” “What’s the point? I have no control over my sleep.” These thoughts and beliefs can be extremely limiting, and holding onto them may only worsen your insomnia. The harder we try to get ourselves to sleep, the less likely it will happen!
A quick review from the previous lesson: By exposing yourself to the morning sun as soon as you wake up, you raise cortisol levels and shut off melatonin production. You’ll also activate a chemical compound in your cells called “adenosine,” which is responsible for creating “sleep pressure” in your brain and works along with your circadian rhythms. It builds up all day while you’re awake, and then releases at night while you sleep. When the pressure builds up high enough, it’s a signal to your body that you’re tired, and allows you the best chance of receiving a good night’s rest.
Can napping fill in the gaps from a poor night’s rest?
A helpful analogy is to think of this “sleep pressure” as air pressure in your tires. You will want to maintain and build this pressure throughout the day. If you take a nap, it will release some of this pressure and will likely affect falling asleep that night. If you are struggling with insomnia, it’s typically advised to avoid napping during the day in an effort to maintain the sleep pressure. Power naps are okay if you must and some find more benefit to longer naps than others. Typically, though, a midday nap may rob your ability to sleep at night.
What else can be affecting my sleep?
We are constantly exposed to many forms of artificial light, more specifically, blue light. Blue light is a color in the visible light spectrum that can be seen by the human eye. Blue light has a short wavelength, which means it produces higher amounts of energy. Whether it’s at the office, the supermarket, or from our devices, studies show that overexposure to blue light can cause eyestrain, fatigue, headaches, and sleeplessness.
In saying that, blue light wavelengths are all around us. In fact, they’re why the sky looks blue. These short blue wavelengths collide with air molecules, which causes the blue light to scatter and makes us process the sky as blue. In this natural form, it helps to regulate the body’s sleep and wake cycles, also known as your circadian rhythm. The biggest concern when it comes to your sleep hygiene is exposure to this blue light at night. It’s all about timing. Simply put, blue light in the morning = good. Blue light in the evening, after sunset = bad. When your eyes are exposed to blue light at night, your internal clock thinks it’s still daytime. Your body will begin to suppress the onset of melatonin, which you now know is what helps our sleep processes get started.
Exposure to the morning sun will wake you up and start your internal sleep clock, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Just being outside in it will do the trick. If you are unable to get your blue light naturally from the sun after waking, you can use a selfie ring, which emulates a lot of blue light.
Exposing yourself to the evening light at sunset sends signals to the body that the day is coming to an end and you can begin to wind down. Also, according to Andrew Huberman, it can protect your body from the potentially harmful effects of light exposure later that night and allow your body’s natural release of melatonin. This research is fascinating!
It’s important to point out that this light exposure should be to the outdoor light instead of through a window. Because the glass filters out some of the ultraviolet light that assists the setting of your internal clock, it will take much longer to receive the same benefits as being outdoors.
Using these techniques helps anchor your sleep clock and can be a powerful strategy in dealing with insomnia. It is also important to expose yourself daily. Consistency is the key to optimal success here.
Here are some additional strategies you may employ to rid yourself of sleepless nights:
Sleep expert Dr. Andrew Weil claims that his technique of the ‘4-7-8’ method can send anyone to sleep within one minute by calming the mind and relaxing the muscles.
The technique is grounded in the principles of the ancient Indian practice called “pranayama,” which means regulation of breath and is used widely in yoga and pilates. It uses the form of yogic breathing where you keep the tip of your tongue behind your upper front teeth.
The basic pranayama breath goes like this: you breathe in through your nose quietly and blow air out forcefully through your mouth making a whoosh sound. It produces a very pleasant altered state of consciousness if you do it for a sufficient amount of time. You may not get that the first time you do it but it’s one of the benefits of practicing.
The changes in breath allow the lungs to become fully filled with air, letting more oxygen into the body, which promotes a state of calm and sends you to sleep – ideal if you wake in the middle of the night too.
Avoid caffeine (tea, coffee, and certain sodas) at least 10 hours before bedtime.
There is a misunderstanding of caffeine and how it works with sleep. Caffeine tricks your body into thinking it’s not tired by creating a barrier between your brain and the activated adenosine by latching onto the receptors of adenosine. It puts the mute button on this sleepiness chemical and allows you to feel awake. All the while, the sleep pressure is building up behind this dam of caffeine. When the caffeine begins to wear off, the big wave of sleep pressure comes all at once. By limiting your intake before noon you will be allowing this wave of sleep pressure to ensue before your bedtime, allowing you to feel tired before going to bed.
Be aware of alcohol’s effect on sleep.
Although alcohol may help you relax, it can also interrupt your sleep. Once the alcohol has been digested, you will wake up, usually within about four hours of falling asleep. Once you’re awake, you may have difficulty falling back to sleep.
Exercise regularly (especially in the morning, late afternoon, or early evening).
Research has shown that regular daily exercise makes it easier to fall asleep and improves sleep quality. In general, exercise makes us feel more relaxed.
Sleep in a cool, dark, quiet bedroom.
Ensure your bedroom is a little bit cool (between 62-67 degrees F is ideal). Remove all light sources from your room. Keeping your room dark will promote better sleep. Blackout curtains seem to work really well here, especially during the summer months. You can try using an eye mask as well. A quiet environment and comfortable mattress are important. In saying that, the use of white noise such as a fan or white noise machine can be helpful.
Leverage your mind to quiet your brain.
Once you’re in bed, experiment with doing a mental body scan. Don’t think about sleeping. Simply focus your attention on scanning your body, becoming aware of the various sensations in your body parts.
Hopefully we’ve driven this point home by now. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including during the weekends. Having a consistent wake time is preferable to having a consistent sleep time, if only one of the two can be controlled.
Avoid checking the news before bed.
News today has become increasingly visual and shocking. Avoid this stimulus before bed to stay aligned with your new mantra of winding down.
Consider keeping a sleep journal for a week or two. Take note of your sleep patterns and how you feel during the day and which variables have the biggest or smallest effect on your sleep quality.
In the case of waking up in the middle of the night without being able to fall asleep, get up and do something that doesn’t require brainpower, like meditation, box breathing, or listening to an audiobook. It is important to associate your bed with sleep, so if you’re not actively falling asleep or staying asleep, remove yourself from that environment. Reset with another relaxing activity until you’re sleepy and ready to lay down again. This will help strengthen the mental association between your bed and sleep.
Today’s Assignment – Lifestyle Practical Exercise
- Expose yourself for 2-10 minutes to the early unadulterated sun as soon as you wake up.
- Expose yourself to the late unadulterated sun in the evening at sunset (within an hour), again 2-10 minutes should do the trick.
- Complete the workout below before noon today.
- My-day-is-done journaling. Before going to bed tonight, take a few minutes to “brain dump” anything that is on your mind into a journal. Simply write down anything you’re ruminating on. Then end with writing “MY DAY IS DONE.” This will help put a button on your day and allow your brain to surrender to some delicious sleep.
Follow the instructions on the poster from Darbee.com above. Have fun!