By Dawn Walton
Many people struggle with sleep. Some struggle to get to sleep, some wake up multiple times through the night and others don’t get a very long sleep. Some people have all of these problems.
When most people try to address insomnia, they focus on the symptoms and not the cause. Countless remedies (medicinal and non-medicinal) are out there to help address sleep problems, but in my experience as a cognitive hypnotherapist, to address sleep problems effectively and permanently, you need to address the cause, not the symptoms; and the cause comes from the daytime.
Standard Sleep Cycle
In a standard 8 hour sleep cycle, you get about 2 hours of REM sleep and 6 hours of deep restorative sleep.
During the REM sleep, your subconscious is doing the filing. It is taking everything that has happened during the day, and filing it against the relevant memories that span your whole life. It is not an intelligent process; it is more about pattern matching. A dream is merely a window into this process.
In the deep restorative sleep phase, your body is repaired and batteries are recharged.
Where It Goes Wrong
When the balance is upset the REM sleep is extended, which reduces deep sleep. This can mean that even if you get a full 8 hours of sleep, you still wake up feeling exhausted.
The problem comes when your subconscious struggles to do the filing.
Imagine that your subconscious is a little person that gathers all the paperwork relating to your day’s activities. Let’s call him Bob for now. You go to sleep and Bob takes the pile of paperwork and starts to organise it. But the first bit of paper he picks up could go in a number of places, so he sticks it in a separate pile for later and grabs the next paper. This continues to the point where the 2 hours is simply not enough. So Bob takes a little more time than he should to do the filing. This means the deep restorative sleep is reduced and your mind and body don’t recharge fully by the time you wake up.
The next day, you are tired and emotional. You struggle to think straight and find yourself not coping as well as you usually would. Bedtime comes along again and you collapse into bed. Now Bob is really frustrated. Because you haven’t been able to process any stuff through day, Bob has no chance of doing the filing and so once more the REM sleep is extended and the restorative sleep reduced.
And so you get stuck in a cycle of extended REM sleep leading to lack of cognitive function through the day.
The problem is not the sleep, the problem is the unresolved stuff from through the day.
What You Can Do About It
Without going to therapy, what can you do to break the cycle? The answer is relatively simple. You need to pre-file before you go to sleep so that Bob has a head start. If you can contain the REM phase of your sleep to 2 hours, then you return to having a chance of sorting out issues as they come up through the day.
Clients who have come to me for insomnia have found the following exercise alone is enough to restore their normal sleep cycle.
1. Focus on your breathing
Breathe in for the count of 2, out for the count of 2; in for the count of 3, out for the count of 3 and so on until you get to 10, then go back to 2 and start again.
2. Thoughts will enter your head
You shouldn’t stop thoughts. A thought is energy and energy can’t be stopped – merely transformed. A thought is too abstract to do anything with so the first thing we need to do is turn an abstract thought into an object. To do that, put a label on it. Maybe you can label it as a worry, a thing to do, a thought from the past. It doesn’t matter what label you use, just stick a label on each thought.
3. Once a thought has been labelled, imagine it leaving your head again.
There are a number of different ways you can imagine the thoughts appearing and you’ll find a way that’s right for you. Examples might include: imagine the thoughts as branches on a tree, and then as each branch grows it turns to jelly and drops to the ground. Or imagine each thought is like a post-it note that floats off a wall, or a bubble that you pop, or even a sound. It doesn’t matter how you visualise it, just make sure you allow the thought into your head, visualise it, label it, and send it away.
4. After you’ve labelled the thought and sent it away, focus on your breathing again and when the next thought comes in, just label it and send it away again
Do this exercise until you fall asleep. Sleep usually comes fairly easily because of the breathing part. By the time you fall asleep, you have already pre-filed so that when your subconscious takes over, it has a head start.
Once your REM sleep returns to the normal 2 hours, your deep sleep will also return to the full amount. This means that the next day you have more chance of processing what goes on because you have more cognitive function available. The cycle is broken.