Mindfully Asleep

Mindfully Asleep

As a therapist I’m often asked to work with people struggling with all sorts of life challenges and personal issues that they feel helplessly overwhelmed by. Often therapists (like myself) forget that the first problem plaguing their clients – when life gets turbulent – is a serious lack of sleep.

Just staying awake in session (for some) is a chore and coming to therapy with this sleep condition hounding you, can cause all sorts of interpersonal and intrapersonal issues. We feel gross, we can’t focus, we can’t retain information. We binge, or crash at all hours, and often, can’t even see outside our own frustration. Never mind the headache that you’re battling at all hours of the day.

These clients may have come to therapy with a note pad and pen ready, but their capacity to even store any new information is severely impaired from this lack of sleep. So, if you are planning on coming to therapy and getting the most out of your time, you might want to start with using mindfulness tools for getting some zzz’s.

Mindfulness meditation is simply about learning to remain in the place you are currently in, without getting too hard on yourself for your natural tendency to want to leave the present and go someplace else. Often when problems amass, the first thing that happens when our distractions become silent and we are alone facing the quietness of a dark room, is that we start to attempt to escape this present. We take off to places outside of the room we are in. We go to the past events, we might start listening to noises outside the room, we start fantasizing, or we are thinking about the problems of the next day ahead. Whatever the case, we really don’t seem to like being where we are, in a dark room with sleep being our operant goal.

So here is how you can start to fix this issue, at least from a mindfulness perspective.

  1. Know your job! That’s right, sleep is vital, and restorative. It is your best chance at making big changes in your life. We have about 6 ninety-minute purge and cleaning cycles, each consisting of 7 wave alterations.  These ninety-minute purge and cleaning stages are where our brains start laying the foundation for new cell growth and learning. In some ways, having a good sleep is a test. It is a test of your willingness to be vulnerable and comfortable with noise distractions. It means that six times a night you will face a wave of sleep that medical doctors could operate on you (meaning someone could walk into your room and then leave without you knowing it), and six times a night you will experience a wave of sleep that is so close to wakefulness that if you are too fearful and overly vigilant, you will surely wake-up and start trying to figure out what sounds you hear.

    So, when I say, “Know your job!”, I mean for you to be aware that you have an 8-hour (sometimes longer) 6x90min job that requires you to be committed to the present task you are currently supposed to be focused on (this is your mindfulness task so-to-speak). Just remember to not get too hard on yourself for forgetting that job.
  2. Let Everything Go! I know its hard, but the distractions are not more important than your task at hand. If you can’t solve the issue in under 5 minutes, write it down for you to hum and haw over tomorrow. Right here and now, this is the moment you choose-to return to the focus of the job at hand. This builds a strong determination within you and trains your brain to pay yourself first, instead of sap you of all your energy and health.

    For those of you struggling with impulses to control the unknown. Holding onto control over the unknown is the enemy of sleep. Often with trauma in our lives our brain sets out on a plan to predict/anticipate/prepare for the future. We literally train ourselves to organize, analyze, or always stay busy and vigilant. No wonder when we face rest, vulnerability and the unknown of it all, we become anxious about other things we feel we ought to do. Yes, your heart is pumping, your body is agitated, and your ears are hypervigilant. This is a combination of your sympathetic nervous system activation (bear is attacking me – brain) and your own practiced way of meeting the unknown. It’s time to coach yourself back to the safety of the here and now. And let your “need to know”go away also.
  3. 50 Breaths Backwards. I can’t take credit for this one, my wife came up with it, and I’ve found it helped me sleep in very vulnerable places my past work environments have put me in.This tool invites the person to distract themselves from their hypervigilant urge, by using the task of counting the breaths backwards (loosely), while focusing (heavily) on the feeling of the air coming into the lungs, expanding the belly, and then noticing the drop of the belly as the air leaves the lungs. The goal is to get more gentle and slower breaths in and out as you do the count down from fifty.

    Here is the read out: Inhale slow (feel the belly rise), exhale with a shhhhh sound (and feel the belly fall)…say “50”. Do that again, then say “49”. If for some reason you begin repeating or forgetting the next number (say around 30) this is good. Just focus on the breath and don’t mind that part. If, however, you start focusing obsessively on trying track which number you are “supposed to be on”, then you should penalize yourself and should return to 50 again. This teaches your brain that obsessing is not the mindfulness task you were supposed to be on right now, and in fact, letting go is.

This approach can be quite helpful, and I have had many clients notice that it supports a healthy outcome in their sleep hygiene routines. I do believe that sometimes clients may suffer with sleep apnea issues which will impair quality sleep and that this approach should not replace the sleep studies done at the Universities or Hospitals around our City. I also have found that for some people, doing trauma work – particularly related to violations which occurred during sleep – can be the turning point for improved sleep. If this is the case, you may benefit from therapy which gets at the root of some of the vigilance keeping your cognitive brain active and preventing you from getting to sleep in the first place.

This blog post “Mindfully Asleep” is part of a much larger manual that therapist Rob Plese offers clients during treatment. There are more factors to consider and work through in the process of discovering sleep solutions. I encourage you to work with you doctor and treatment professionals along your journey of sleeping better.  Rob Plese M.A., C.C.C.

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