Train Your Brain for Sleep
On election night, millions of people hardly slept. It’s no surprise really.
Stress-filled thoughts, worry thoughts and Beyond-What-We-Can-Control thoughts increase cortisol and adrenaline levels in the brain, minimizing the possibility of a good night’s sleep. Countless friends and family members reported that staying up late, watching nail-biting results, meant exhaustion the next day.
Another deterrent of a restful sleep is thinking to yourself,
“I hope I sleep tonight.”
For those who suffer from insomnia, hoping and wanting to sleep is a natural thought to have during the day. However, the fear of not sleeping and thinking internally, “I hope I can sleep,” can condition the mind for activation not rest.
HOW you think and WHAT you think, really does matter. Here’s why:
Neurologically, you are not in charge of when you will fall asleep. Just as you are not in charge of digesting yourself after eating a meal, you are not in charge of sleeping yourself. Both digestion and sleep are automated by your brain and can be negatively effected by worry, fear or an abundance of stress-filled thoughts.
Just as certain foods you eat upset your stomach, interrupting your digestion, your thoughts can upset sleep and the automated sleep cycle. When it comes to a good night’s sleep, like making good food chooses, choose thoughts that promote ease and rest and follow these 3 steps:
STEP 1: Limit worry and stress-thoughts (a trick in the time of Covid).
Sustained worry and fear causes restlessness, agitation and activation in the mind. When the mind perceives a threat, it stimulates the threat response area of the brain – fight/flight/freeze – our most primitive and easily aroused natural response.
Think of a zebra becoming aware of a lion nearby. Zebra’s brain turns off anyoption of sleep when a threat like lion is in sight. Instead, zebra’s brain causes the zebra to be as alert as possible. And like zebra’s brain, our most primitive, unconscious mind, works the same way.
Our automatic brain (where sleep is initiated) reacts to perceived threats which include our “worry” thoughts, keeping us alert and active — sleep alluding us. Therefore, thinking about something that causes us to worry (about an election or otherwise) appears as a lion to the threat response area of the brain.
In essence, the more you force yourself or “try” to fall asleep, the more your brain reacts against full relaxation. Forceful thoughts or “trying” to make something happen puts your brain on alert. The more frustrated you are that you aren’t sleeping, the less likely sleep will find you.
Step One Summary: Don’t try to sleep yourself— it’s not your job. Prepare for sleep by making your thoughts or environment as worry-free as possible.
STEP 2: Think about something soothing and exhale slowly.
Can you recall the exact moment when you fell asleep last night? You probably don’t remember that moment. That’s a sure sign you’re not in charge of sleeping yourself. You CAN TAKE CHARGE of resting your body fully. Rest your body on your bed. Get as comfortable as possible and become aware of your breath.
Take a few deep breaths in your abdomen and allow your exhale to be slightly longer than the inhale. This will encourage the Rest and Digest Process (aka the Parasympathetic Nervous System) to engage. Focusing on a slow exhale can also gently push aside any thoughts that might be perceived as a threat.
Next, bring to mind a place in nature that brings you peace or joy. Thinking of something in nature that is peaceful will convince your brain that there is no lion. When there’s no “perceived” threat, your brain can initiate the sleep cycle on your behalf.
My place in nature is a high mountain lake. I chose this because there’s an
imperceptible movement of the water and it feels gentle and restful for me. I imagine, as I lay on my bed breathing slowly, a grey rock in the shallows of the clear lake just above the surface of the water. I continue to imagine how the water slowly covers part of that grey rock and it becomes darker colored. I watch (in my mind) how the receding water causes that darker color to return to the original grey color. I may also see the sunlight glistening on the water’s surface.
Within a very short time, I am asleep. And though I cannot remember the exact moment that sleep took me into it’s realm, I know that the calming lake did the trick. Soothing thoughts exclude anything that amounts to taking action. There’s no action needed when thinking of a lake and slow moving water.
Step Two Summary: Rest your body fully, breathe slowly and redirect your
thoughts again and again to something soothing where there’s nothing for you to do but observe and rest.
STEP 3: Celebrate when Steps One and Two have worked!
You’ve successfully prepared your conscious ‘thinking mind” for sleep. You’ve allowed the deeper part of your brain, the part of your brain that is wired for threat, to get the message that nothing is threatening. You’ve redirected worry or ‘action’ thoughts towards something that is restful and soothing from nature like a body of water (stream, lake or ocean), forest or desert.
When athletes have a successful moment, what do they do?
They throw their arms in the air, they dance or high five someone. All those
celebratory YESES help them to do whatever they did successfully, again and again. It creates a positive pattern in the brain.
When you wake and recall that you practiced the steps to sleep described above, and you fell asleep, celebrate! The best way to make this a permanent change is to make it a habit. And habits (or rituals) are the result of doing something repeatedly and acknowledging the positive effects of those habits.
Step Three Summary: You’ve made your thoughts Sleep-Worthy. Celebrate
your awareness the next morning, and repeat the process.
Think of your thoughts as a bed of music, what kind of music would be best for you to fall asleep to? Heavy metal or a light piano? Do what you can to make your inner-thought-environment as soothing as possible.
Lastly, if you know that trauma or anxiety effect the way you think or feel inside, you may need the help of a specialist for effective trauma and anxiety release methods to clear the subconscious brain of negative emotions from past experiences.
As a practitioner with a particular interest in brain-change and neuroplasticity, treatments that address and update anxiety or trauma, I offer 15-minute video consultations through Collective Connection or scheduling via email.
My 3-Step Formula for Sleep video includes key pieces for how to fall asleep. The full Sleep Formula is transcribed below, so scroll down after the video.
As you will discover, the most important step is – DON’T TRY!
Instead, allow your brain to sleep you. Here’s how to prepare:
- Warm, relaxing bath
- Stimulant-free tea
- Limit screen time 1-2 hours before bed
- Good, supportive pillow and clean sheets
- Darkened room with a cooler temperature
- Earplugs and eye masks
- Don’t look at the clock, better yet- turn off all devices or leave them in another room
- Place a notepad next to your bed to make notes if needed in the middle of night