WHAT IS SLEEP?
It is a state that is not at all easy to define. Without much ado, it could be described as follows: To feel sufficiently secure to allow our “awake selves” to move to another state: that of sleep. It is useful to regard the process of falling asleep as a personal, spiritual practice, which also has its psychological aspects.
Research indicates that approximately half of the world’s population experience sleeping problems. The most common practice flowing from this, is the use alcohol, sleeping tablets or reaching a state of total exhaustion to bring on sleep.
WHAT NATURE TEACHES US ABOUT SLEEP
When we look at nature, we see a whole lot of information that is logical and makes sense. The sun rises in the morning and shines all day. Then the sun goes down and dusk descends, until it is totally dark – night-time. The process is also necessary for our brain functions. We are meant to work during the day while the sun shines brightly. When dusk descends, the brain starts to produce Melatonin, the sleep hormone, and we are supposed to become calm and relaxed. As the darkness intensifies, the brain produces ever-increasing quantities of this hormone, we become sleepy and we want to go to bed.
THE REALITIES OF THE MODERN-DAY SOCIETY
But what has happened since? We have to return home via cars, busses, trains and planes, amidst the noise and pollution of the city – and often it is already dark when we get home.
In addition, men-made lights are switched on as soon as dusk descends: flashing neon advertisements, street lights, etc. On arriving home, we are met by lights from the garden, from the house, from computers, radios, television sets, videos, MXit, ipods, movies, the theatre – you name them. Eighty percent of the stimuli that reach the brain via the senses is visual – i.e. we absorb it via our eyes. And 80 percent is rather high. Light stimulates the production of Serotonin, which provides us with energy. Twilight time has disappeared – it is no longer part of our lives. The majority of people drag out their day for as long as possible, as though they are fleeing from the night. Have we become a hyperactive, essentially visually stimulated society?
Increasing evidence indicates that even the slightest exposure to light during the night disturbs our circadian rhythms – i.e. our sleep/awake pattern. The result is that we lose our awareness of life’s normal rhythms – our experience of being ‘intact people’. The link between sleep and mental health is of critical importance and highly complex. Approximately 80 percent of people with psychiatric disorders suffer from sleeping problems. Insomnia, especially the lack of ability to sleep right through the night, has been regarded as a classic symptom of depression for many years. Eventually we find ourselves in a situation where we are half-awake while asleep, and half-asleep during the day.
As energy addicts we require instant solutions, such as caffeine, food with a high sugar content, alcohol and all kinds of pills and opiates: tranquillisers, pain killers, sleeping tablets, dagga, maruana, etc. The effect of these substances manifests itself as nervousness and restlessness, which only serves to camouflage the underlying exhaustion. They help in the short term, but with long-term results that will cost you dearly.
During 2006, almost 50 million prescriptions were issued for sleeping tablets in the USA – 15 percent more than in the previous year.
THE EFFECT OF SLEEPING TABLETS
The long-term use of sleeping tablets can negatively affect our ability to fall asleep naturally.
- Both over-the-counter and prescription sleep medication leads to dependency.
- It affects the memory of some people.
- The “second life” of some sleeping tablets causes us to wake up in the morning, without really being wide awake.
- In the four phases of sleep, sleeping tablets only promote the first two. Therefore, the quality of the sleep that we do manage to achieve is not satisfactory.
- To top it all: The critically important role that every person has to play in taking responsibility for his/her own lifestyle is being disregarded.
New research into sleeping tablets indicates that only about 25 minutes of additional sleep is gained – sometimes even less – because the pills function in such a way that they cause amnesia about episodes of lying awake at night and they lead sleepers to believe that they sleep better than they in fact do. Some pills contain an ingredient that suppresses dreams, and others again contain an ingredient that causes liver damage.
However, the other side is not to throw out the baby with the bath water. In the event of medical and personal crises, the short-term use of sleeping tablets could have its advantages. However, the idea that we have no control over our sleeping patterns and need to be assisted by an external substance to fall asleep, should be seriously questioned.
A FEW MISPERCEPTIONS ABOUT SLEEP
- The idea that someone who falls asleep immediately or within five minutes is a good sleeper, does not necessarily hold water. On the contrary, it could indicate over-exhaustion or an accumulated debt of sleep – which is a symptom of a sleep disorder.
- The majority of people like to watch TV or read before going to bed. Even if their eyelids become heavy and they fall asleep, they actually resist falling asleep. Apparently this is to get even sleepier so that they can just fall over and go to sleep instantly. The idea of spending 15 or 20 minutes alone with only their own company could perhaps prove to be too much. And yet, that is precisely what is required to sleep well.
- It sometimes happens that a person who has lost a loved one escapes into activities and light by, for example, working very late and, in so doing, trying to avoid the process of mourning. In the long term, this is not the solution.
- It is actually impossible to “go to bed to sleep” as though we were purposefully underway to a destination. It works far better to let go of “being awake”.
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
A few tips:
Stimulated Twilight Time
Do you allow twilight time in your lifestyle? It is not a technique to sleep better – it is an attitude, a growing awareness of a neglected facet of humanity. It is to cut your self loose from your awareness of the day and to switch over to an awareness of the night. It is to change gears emotionally, let go of the day and welcome the night. Dusk and darkness are natural tranquillisers. They could be used to decrease visual stimulation and, in so doing, promote the production of Melatonin. The best sleeping tablets come in the form of darkness.
Rest and Rhythm
Even short periods of simply looking out of the window during the day, going for a brisk walk, or just sitting down and allowing yourself to be quiet, can be of great help. Due to the fact that we are overly busy, we function in fifth gear and do not grant ourselves a breather or even something to eat.
Habits before going to bed
Excessive exercising, watching videos (especially those that cause the adrenaline to pump), reading thrillers, socialising until late, working on your computer until it is time to go to bed, coffee and tea that contain caffeine, as well as alcohol after two-o’-clock in the afternoon, are some of the most effective methods to disturb a good night’s sleep. Television sets and computer monitors radiate a host of blue light waves, which hamper the production of Melatonin. It would be a good idea to turn down the lights a short while before it is time to go to bed, and if you want to read before going to bed, to use a very soft light.
Processing the day’s events
We need time to reflect on the day’s events and to process these. If we fail to do so, we suppress them and they turn into baggage which causes us wake up later during the night, or they can even cause nightmares. However, a very fine balance is required here. To lie in bed, endlessly brooding about an issue that you can do nothing about at that particular stage, is unproductive. That is the so-called racing mind which, in my opinion, is one of the major causes of sleep disturbances. It feels impossible to stop the drama playing out in your thoughts or the dialogue that you are creating to get back at the person who had made you angry in the first place.
This is where meta-cognition comes in very handy. This means asking yourself: “What am I busy thinking about?” Can you do something about it now and do you really want to lie awake because of it? Then you take a decision about what you will do about it tomorrow, or decide to shelve it, or to let it go and become at peace with yourself. Then take your thoughts to, for example, a tranquil scene that you appreciate very much. Deliberate, deep and regular breathing is yet another resource at your disposal.
To fall asleep easily, actually requires only two things: that we relax and concentrate on something neutral or positive. Sleep emanates from a mind that is at peace – and from darkness. It works much better to let go of being awake, than to try and force yourself to fall asleep.
Rubin Naiman, Psychotherapy Networker September 2009