We’ve probably all had quite a few nights throughout our lifetime where we have struggled to get to sleep and have felt groggy and tired the next day.
Few of us however would deliberately continue to deny ourselves sleep over a sustained period of time. That is unless your name is Randy Gardner (a very unfortunate name, thankfully I don’t think he took up a career in horticulture). As a high school student in San Diego in the 1960s, Randy took part in a school science project to try and stay awake for as long as possible. When his motivation to stay awake was waning he was paid to carry on with the experiment, adding evidence to the theory that students will do anything for a bit of cash.
A few more dollars in his beer fund was all that was necessary to encourage Randy to stay awake for an incredible 11 days and 11 nights, that’s a mightily-impressive 264 hours. Unsurprisingly throughout the experiment Randy became tired, irritable, suffered memory loss and even mild hallucinations. Amazingly after sleeping for close to 15 hours on the first night after the experiment and then around 10 and a half hours the next, he was back into his normal sleeping routine on night 3 with no long-term damaging health effects. There is hope for us all!
Asking a small child to sleep because Santa won’t deliver presents if they’re awake, is akin to asking an adult to sleep when they realise they’ve matched all the winning lottery numbers. Not being able to sleep at sporadic points during the year does not mean that you have insomnia, it just means that you are a normal human being. Both circumstances have caused temporary sleep deprivation through being over excited.
As a species we’re generally very good at depriving ourselves of sleep. A work deadline to meet, social media to catch up, on or a new Netflix series to watch, are common reasons why we burn the midnight oil. Sleep deprivation however differs from insomnia. With sleep deprivation we have the ability to sleep but we’re not giving ourselves the time to sleep because we are prioritising other things instead.
When we find our circumstances have changed, we find ourselves able to get back into our normal sleeping routine, much like Randy after his experiment. If there was a sleep study done on children, I’m sure there would be a remarkable difference between time spent asleep on the night of Christmas Eve and then on Christmas Day.
How is insomnia different?
Insomnia is quite accurately described in the lyrics of the banging house tune by Faithless; ‘I need to sleep; I can’t get no sleep’. We might question the grammar, but the statement rings true. Insomnia is essentially the opposite of sleep deprivation. Here we want to sleep, we have given ourselves enough time to sleep but we can’t generate sleep. This is a far more mentally and physically damaging state than sleep deprivation. With sleep deprivation, generally, for one reason or another, we are not prioritising sleep, with insomnia we just don’t have the ability to fall or stay asleep.
Are there different types of insomnia?
There are two different types of insomnia: sleep onset insomnia and sleep maintenance insomnia. Thankfully both types of insomnia can often be successfully helped using Solution Focused Hypnotherapy because they are often both caused by the same issue. Sleep onset insomnia refers to the difficulty of falling asleep. Sleep maintenance insomnia, on the other hand, refers to the difficulty in staying asleep. Hypnotherapy for insomnia can help sufferers to both fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep for longer.
Insomnia and anxiety
The two most common triggers of insomnia are emotional concerns or emotional distress (anxiety). In an ideal world, we would like to go to bed, our head hits the pillow, and then fall asleep within 10 to 15 minutes. For some this is a reality, for others there is little chance of them falling asleep because their mind is racing. Perhaps it’s worrying about things that have been done or things that are needed to be done. In either case it’s simply not possible to engage in sleep with the constant mind chatter going on.
What causes anxiety?
Neuroscience tells us that anxiety is caused by worry or negative thinking. We can worry about events that have happened in the past, present, or future. Because your brain can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality, it just accepts that these things have or are going to happen. If you worry about a meeting or presentation that’s in the future, your brain processes it as its going to happen, so it affects your anxiety levels today.
How do anxiety levels increase?
Imagine there’s a part of your brain that represents a bucket, we’ll call it a stress bucket. Each worry or negative thought you have gets dropped into your stress bucket. So, if you worry about something twenty times, that’s twenty things that have entered into your bucket. Now if you do that regularly and with different concerns, soon your stress bucket is going to overflow causing your anxiety levels to increase.
The effect of anxiety on our nervous system
If your bucket is close to being full or indeed overflowing, you will spend a lot of your time in your sympathetic nervous system. This is otherwise known as your fight/flight mode. It’s evolved with us throughout our history.
It’s a survival instinct. If we were facing a foe, we would automatically switch on our fight/flight mode. The part of our brain that regulates hormones would react instantly supplying us with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. As a result, breathing and heart rate would increase giving us a greater supply of energy-giving blood. This increased our chances of survival, giving us a greater ability to either fight our foe or run from it.
Anxiety effecting sleep
So, while we don’t have to worry about fighting tribes or running from a sabre-toothed tiger, our fight/flight mode can also be activated with modern living. As we’ve discovered, thinking negatively causes anxiety. We might be worried about money, relationships, exams, presentations, or our future. It doesn’t matter what we worry about, the effect is still the same – a full stress bucket and an overactive sympathetic nervous system. It’s also very common for insomnia sufferers to worry about sleep. This then very quickly turns into a vicious circle of worry. The sufferers worry about the consequences of not falling asleep, but then they have little hope of falling asleep because both their mind and thoughts are racing.
When in bed, if our body is metaphorically gearing up to fight a sabre-toothed tiger, it should come as no surprise that we’re going to find falling asleep troublesome. Our body still has an oversupply of stress hormones whose very job is to increase our alertness and increase our heart and breathing rate. None of this is going to aid us in our quest for sleep.
In addition, being in our fight/flight mode raises our core body temperature. In order to sleep, our core body temperature needs to be lowered. This is often the reason why we find it difficult to sleep on hot summer nights. When we operate within our sympathetic nervous system, our metabolic rate is increased, resulting in higher internal body temperatures in areas including our brain.
How does hypnosis help?
Hypnosis can help to slow a racing mind by calming down the parts of the brain that activate our stress response. In doing so our ‘busy’ beta brain waves become less active allowing other brain waves to help relax us and prepare our minds and body for sleep.
Listening to a hypnosis download in bed is very often enough to help many people drift off to sleep. If this is repeated over a number of weeks, just this simple act can help people to overcome their insomnia. But what happens for those who are still awake at the end of the track? While there is little doubt they will be calmer and would have benefited from spending more time with their brain in its problem solving state, they’re still awake. Can we make the process more effective?
The Circadian Rhythm
The circadian rhythm operates continually inside our brains controlling a whole range of functions. In fact, all animals and even plants have ‘rhythmicity’. One of its main functions for us as humans is to run our sleep-wake cycle. In simple terms, daylight signifies to our circadian cycle that we should be awake.And as the day draws on and light turns to dark, that signifyies that it’s time to sleep.
The circadian rhythm works on a 90-minute cycle from dip to peak and back to dip. We would have all experienced that mid-afternoon slump, where we seem to be lethargic even though we’re only halfway through the day. At this point, you’re at a dip in your circadian rhythm. Amazingly just 45 minutes later we can be bright eyed, bushy tailed, and back to our best again. Our ‘eureka’ moments will happen mostly when we are at the peak of our circadian rhythm. Conversely when we’re staring at a problem and can’t see the wood for the trees, we will more than likely be in a dip. So how can we use this information to help us sleep?
It’s well known that setting a regular bedtime routine is very beneficial for helping to generate sleep, but what happens if you’re going to bed at the wrong time? If you are going to bed at the peak of your circadian rhythm, then even listening to a calming hypnosis download may not be enough to help you peacefully drift off to sleep, especially if your mind was racing. You want to be in bed just before your dip to increase your chances of quickly falling to sleep.
A quite accurate way of measuring your dip is to track your evening yawn. A yawn is a clear signal to us that we’re currently in a dip. Let’s say that you notice that you yawn at 9pm, you now have two choices: you could take yourself off to bed immediately or wait for your next dip. As we know that there is a 90-minute period between dips. The next opportunity for you to catch this dip would be 10:30pm and then the following one would be at midnight.
Larks, Owls, and others.
Whether it’s best for you to go to bed at 9pm, 10.30pm, or midnight will depend on your chronotype. People tend to fall into one of three categories. Larks like to go to bed early and be early to rise. Owls are the opposite – they tend to favour going to bed late and rising late. Then there’s the inbetweeners who don’t favour one or the other. There is generally a fairly even 3-way split into these groups throughout the population.
These different chronotypes have been present throughout our evolution. It was nature’s way of helping to keep our tribe safe. If we all naturally fell asleep at the same time, then we would have been easy pickings for predators. By ensuring that we had naturally differing sleep times, we were better able to protect our tribe throughout the night. Interestingly we tend to start a family with people from the opposite chronotype for exactly the same reason today.
Setting a bedtime routine
So, if you’re an owl, there is little point rushing upstairs at 9pm even though you’re in a dip in your circadian rhythm. It would be much more beneficial for you to start to head up stairs around 11.40pm. You’ve then got time to wash your face and brush your teeth and settle into bed. This is then a perfect time to listen to a ‘guided relaxation’ download and drift off into a peaceful sleep at some point.
Hopefully you can use this information to set yourself a bedtime which is in sync with your circadian rhythm. If you’re listening to a ‘guided relaxation’ download, hopefully, you’ll be like most of my clients and say ‘I barely got down the stairs!’
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