In this uncertain time, many of us are struggling to get to sleep at night, and once we get to sleep - we struggle to stay asleep. We were lucky enough to sit down with Adam Liss of Cape Stress Reduction & Optimal Health who gave us some pointers that just may have us catching a few more z’s.
Now, we’re sure most of us have heard about the basics of “sleep hygiene” in one form or another, right? Turn your lights off, make sure the room is a good temperature, and be sure to limit screen time and the consumption of beverages like alcohol, caffeine, and sugary concoctions. While all great habits to embrace in the name of sleep - what happens when you’ve checked off all those items, and you’re still left staring holes into your ceiling at 2am?
To understand a little bit of why you’re tossing, turning, and desperately counting sheep, let’s first scratch the surface of how our brain works and why it wants to keep us up at night.
We have thousands of thoughts per day. Consider that for a moment as you cast your eyes around the area you’re sitting in right now. Are you at home? Did you sigh when you noticed the dishes in the sink like I just did? That reminds me, I’ve got to fold the laundry. I hope my husband picked up his clothes from the bedroom floor and put them in the laundry basket - maybe I should check. No, no - it’s his responsibility. If he runs out of socks that’s his loss. Speaking of loss I haven’t checked on those strawberries in the fridge. I bought them because my sister came to visit and they’re her favorite food, maybe I should......
Get the idea? All those thoughts, in only a few seconds! And we all know they play on a loop more often than not. So many of our thoughts - about 90% - are redundant. And, in this Covid time, they’re also worries.
As humans we’ve trained our brains, unconsciously, to put these worries on a loop for us - like our own background music. And our brain loves to play this music and create stress, and create problems. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t get the signal to quit just because we lay down at night. The recommended 6-8 hrs of sleep accounts for between ¼ - ⅓ of our day - time we should be resting but instead we spend it worrying and overthinking.
These worries create stress within the body and when these worries create stress, they itch at a very primal instinct with each and every one of us: fight or flight. Hopefully none of us have a chance of being pursued by an apex predator later today but there is a good chance that one of us will forget something at the grocery store, stress about an important meeting, or try to decipher the school district’s reopening plans. All of this creates stress, which activates fight or flight.
In nature, fight or flight requires physical exertion to complete its cycle and return our bodies to resting state, and with the constant stress of work, relationships, parenting...what am I forgetting? Ah, yes: the global pandemic - no matter your stance on the matter - this instinct rarely has a chance to shut off. So...how do we deal with this instinct and our brains that wont shut off our extra thoughts?
We practice to change our brain with relaxation
To do this, we need to know that there are two “circuits” within the brain that deal with how we process our experiences. The first one was demonstrated above, when my thoughts bounced from my dishes, to my laundry and on and on and on. This is default, or narrative, circuitry. This tells the story of lives: questions or ideas we have and their solutions. The part that’s not so great when you’re trying to sleep? This narrative is constant. It can be a bombardment of thoughts, whether or not we really need them in a given moment. There is hope. To calm down this hyperactive circuit, we call upon another: direct experience.
Direct experience allows us to be in the moment: observe a sunset; taste food; smell the coffee brewing. It pushes aside all that chatter of the narrative circuit and allows us to experience something in its entirety: right here, right now. Now, none of us are perfect at this and it certainly takes practice to keep your mind on the direct experience of that first sip of morning coffee without wondering if you’ve put beans on the grocery list.
How do we become better at being in the moment? Practice.
Close your eyes and think about where you’re sitting - where are your hands? Are your feet on the floor? Are your legs crossed? Start to notice your breathing and any background sounds.
How does your breath feel? Stay with it for a few moments...
If any narrative thoughts come up - that’s okay. Remind yourself, “That’s okay, it's just a thought.” Be sure to return to physical sensation and the sensation of your breath. Emotional responses warrant the same response. That’s OK - that’s just (sigh) emotion. Allow yourself to feel the physical sensations of it in your body and allow it to complete itself. Return to the moment. Notice how the pillow feels under your head, or how your feet feel between the mattress and the sheets. Can you feel a bit of your breath on your lip? Stay with that for a few moments. See what happens...
When you’re ready, come back to us. How do you feel? What did you notice?
It’s important to remember that the point of this mindfulness and breathwork activity is NOT to stop thinking, or to label any thoughts or feelings as wrong, it is just to shift the focus back to the present moment and the breathing. This is a great thing to do when falling asleep: notice any tension, emotion, shaking etc. and allow your body to feel what it wants to feel, and let it pass through, always returning to the present moment.
Adam reminds us that mindfulness is about turning towards what’s happening rather than away from the moment. By embracing the sensations of the present moment rather than listening to that loop of thoughts playing in the background, we can calm that fight or flight instinct and allow our body to embrace rest.
Interested in learning more? Check out Cape Stress Reduction and sign up for Adam's mailing list and, as always, keep checking out this site for tools to help you on your health and wellness journey!