Healing and Physical Health 3
Posted on August 15, 2014
Our final post in the Healing and Physical Health series will look at the role of sleep in health and healing. Personally, sleep has always been elusive. My mind spins and spins without end (not a surprise to those who know me). I envy people like my wife, who seems to be able to fall asleep immediately and at any time she wants.
In my search for what builds robustness and resiliency, sleep holds a special, if not central, place. Throughout our lives, sleep is the one activity we do more than any other single thing. Yet mastering the cycles of our sleep patterns seem more and more difficult as we become busier, more stressed, and more and more connected to our technology.
For our clients who have unresolved trauma, the memories and pain associated with these events often come out during their sleep in the form of nightmares. Some clients I have worked with have expressed a fear of sleep. They describe something similar to the old Nightmare on Elm Street movies, with Freddy Krueger being replaced by those who have abused them in the past. It also seems like for many people, the more they are able to hold it together during the day, the more haunted their sleep is.
For so many clients, the alternative to this reality is either to not sleep or to use illegal drugs to knock themselves out. Is it any wonder that clients who aren’t getting sleep, or when they do it is chemically induced, have trouble meeting the demands and requirements of our programs? Fortunately, many people are able to recover healthy sleep patterns once they have worked through their past trauma. Others, though, get lost in this haze of sleeplessness, drug use to induce sleep, and additional drug use to wake themselves so they feel somewhat normal during the day.
As someone who has struggled with insomnia earlier in my life, I understand the desperation to fall asleep and the need to manage the results of sleepless nights. I’m not one that likes to rely on drugs to function, but I also understand the crazy urgency felt at 4 am when no sleep has come. God only knows what I would have taken at that point if it had been available! Over the years, I have addressed my issues. On my good days I am able to sleep fairly well. I would like to share some research that might help those of you who also struggle with sleep, and may provide some ideas and strategies that could work with your clients.
Here are some simple things that most of us already know, so I’ll just list them quickly:
· Unplug. It is best to turn off all electronics about an hour before trying to sleep. This includes phones, computers, tablets, and TV Our visual field can hold the light from these devices for about an hour after we turn them off. In addition, things like social media and e-mail excite many areas in our brain. This is great when we are working, but this excitement can prevent us from relaxing and keep us awake longer.
· The environment. Cool, dark, and quiet promote sleep.
· Alcohol. While alcohol can help bring sleep on, it reduces the quality of sleep dramatically and often leads to waking up in the middle of the night and can prevent us from falling back asleep. If you are going to have a few drinks, earlier in the evening is better.
· Tired eyes. I read recently that blinking your eyes quickly for several minutes (basically making them tired) signals to your brain it is time to sleep. I’ve tried this a few times and it does seem to work. Reading can also help, but make sure the material is not something that is too emotionally or intellectually exciting. This excitement can keep you awake. I find magazines great for sleep time. The articles are short and mostly not too exciting.
· Consistency. Research shows that waking up and going to sleep at the same time trains the brain and helps sleep come earlier. This has been the most effective strategy for me, and unfortunately the most annoying! Waking up early on Saturday and Sunday and going to sleep early on the weekends isn’t my preference, but it has really helped!
· Mindfulness/Meditation. I encourage everyone I know to practice mindfulness (especially those of us in the helping professions). Practicing near bedtime releases many of the chemicals that also promote sleep.
· If you practice yoga, there are specific poses that can help to calm the nervous system, quiet the brain and assist with sleep, particularly if practiced consistently each evening. I suggest consulting your yoga instructor. You may also wish to read more in this yoga journal artic
· Cognitive Behavior/Sleep Therapy. I resisted this for years, which is a little illogical considering the impact lack of sleep has had on me at certain points in my life. The University of Iowa has done research on the sleep problems of their students and were alarmed with the extent of the problems they were experiencing. They began offering their student the online CBT program Shuti (www.shuti.me) and are getting some good results. I tried this program and it really worked. It isn’t easy. You start with strategically limiting your sleep, but over time you work up to that magical 7 or 8 hours. Coldspring Center has no relationship with the providers of this program, but as a user I found it really effective and affordable.
While many of you have heard of the above strategies before, I have found that fewer have heard some the shocking results associated with not getting enough sleep. Besides being tired, here are a few other impacts from lack of sleep.
· Drunkenness. Lack of sleep has much the same impact on us as drinking. Very few of us would show up trashed to work. But lack of sleep and intoxication have some very similar characteristics. When we are sleep deprived we do not realize how impaired the lack of sleep has made us. We are like the person who thinks they are a much better driver after a few beers. This can been seen in the car accidents associated with tired driving, loss of work productivity, and workplace accidents. These all go up dramatically when people are tired.
· Learning. We learn when we sleep. As we sleep, our brain files information we got that day with similar information we have learned in the past. Sleep is where we form many of our memories, and without sleep we lose much of this knowledge. If you ever crammed all night for a test in college, you probably did okay on the test itself, because you had the information in short term memory. But what did you remember a few weeks later? If you are like most of us, probably not much!
· Early death and diabetes. This one really kicked me in the butt! When we do not get that magical seven or eight hours, our brain does not have the rest it needs to operate at its best. Our brain hates not being at its best. Being sleep deprived, we are more likely to reach for a food or drink that is REALLY high in sugar. This gives our brains the short-term energy we need, but then we crash, requiring more sugar and often caffeine. Over time, this has been shown to lead to type 2 diabetes and also to early death. If that isn’t enough to motivate you, sleeping eight hours per night has been shown to facilitate healthy weight loss.
In our society we have devalued sleep. We respect those that only get a few hours of sleep and work 14 hour days, and this mindset has led to a wide range of physical and emotional problems. Historically, sleep was natural, as it was pretty much all there was to do after the sun went down. Today we have a million things we can do, and are able to do most of them at all hours of the day or night. As helpers, we must prioritize sleep if we wish to give our clients our best selves.
We also need to make sure that we are talking about sleep with our clients. Not only is sleep critical to healing and health, but problems with sleep can often indicate bigger issues, such as past trauma or substance abuse problems. We have to make sure that we assess and help clients strategize about the one thing we do more than any other thing in our lives.