Learn How to Sleep Like a Pro with Sophrology
We all know that sleep is essential to good health. Yet, we still somehow think that we can function on just a few hours’ sleep. But did you know that not sleeping enough has a similar effect to being intoxicated? A study shows that if you stay awake for about 18 hours (for example waking up at 7:00am and staying up until 1:00am) you reach cognitive impairments as severe as significant intoxication (0.1%, which is legally drunk in most places).
When we lack sleep, our brain and body actually need to work harder to stay alert and keep going. This can make us feel fatigued, in a low mood, stressed, forgetful, slower in reaction times, prone to headaches and muscle pain, always hungry and gaining weight. The list goes on and on.
Before we know it, sleep deprivation can affect the quality of our relationships, our work performance, our energy levels, our concentration and memory, and even our resilience. And despite the clear negative effects of lack of sleep in our daily lives, chronic lack of sleep is more common now than ever.
How Sleep Benefits Body and Mind
Sleep is vital for the health of body and mind, as many studies have found. Regulating hormone production, muscle repair, and boosting the immune system are just some of the ways that sleep benefits the body (see study). People who sleep well at night also tend to have better memory, better problem-solving skills, better concentration and mental agility. Sleep also supports the brain to fight infection and to repair after injury or trauma (Science Daily).
During sleep a whole host of body functions happen automatically. Our body produces melatonin, which controls sleeping patterns and growth hormones, which is responsible for cellular growth and repair. Levels of our stress hormone, cortisol, also drop, allowing us to rest.
We go through different sleep cycles, alternating states between two sleep phases throughout the course of the night – REM and non-REM sleep.
Non-rapid eye movement (NREM), is usually the first cycle of sleep. In the NREM phase everything starts to slow down including eye movement, the body temperature drops, the muscles relax, the heart rate slows down and the brain waves slow down until they reach the delta brain wave state. At the final stage of NREM we are at our deepest sleep and the time when the body builds bone and muscle, repairs and regenerates tissues and strengthens the immune system.
Rapid eye movement (REM), a state mostly dominated by the sympathetic nervous system is characterised by muscle twitches and changes in breathing patterns; this is usually when we dream.
When we are able to achieve sleep deep enough to go through these alternating phases multiple times, our immune system gets a boost as the body releases proteins called cytokines, which fight inflammation and infections. Each cell in our body produces waste to live and during sleep all the cellular waste is taken away to be disposed of.
As sleep cleans cellular waste in the body, it also allows the mind to declutter. The mind needs rest after a whole day of processing information: brain synapses (the areas connecting neurons that pass electric impulses) are stimulated by our interactions with our environment. During sleep the synapses slow down their activity to normal levels, enabling the regeneration of neurons in the cerebral cortex. This is a restorative process for the brain called neuroplasticity, when the brain re-wires itself and builds new neural connections.
Sleep is also neuroprotective, i.e., it helps the brain to consolidate what we have learned during the day, organising information into what to keep and what to discard, all while recharging itself, therefore reducing mental fatigue. Sleep can literally “sweep the cobwebs” of the brain and helps shape our long term memory.
Research published by Boston University showed that when we sleep the cerebrospinal fluid flushes our brain, collecting and disposing cellular waste such as a build-up of proteins. This improves the blood flow in the brain and helps prevent degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
On an emotional level, sleep is that it has the ability to lower our anxiety levels and pain sensations. Undisturbed sleep releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for feeling good and for lowering pain.
The sympathetic nervous system, responsible for our response to stress, also slows down during sleep.
As we better understand sleep’s role in our overall health we can better understand how our personal routines and habits affect our ability to gain restful sleep.
Enabling the Sleep Cycle
Sleep issues are difficult to tackle on your own because they are often deeply rooted and influenced by our daily routines and stress levels. Sophrology recognises that everyone’s routines, sleep predispositions, needs and chronotypes are different. There is no one-size-fits-all sleep solution and following a rigid sleep plan is not going to work or feel good. Sophrology has a phenomenological approach to sleep which in essence means that as you systematically journey through different Sophrology practices, you will discover and unlock whatever it is unique to you that prevents you from enjoying restful deep sleep.
Sleep problems have many root causes from stress, poor food or digital habits, to being out of sync with our circadian rhythm (our biological clock) or feeling agitated by emotion or experience we haven’t managed to process yet. It’s important to understand the mechanism of sleep to be able to uncover the right solutions for you.
Breaking the Stress Cycle to Improve the Sleep Cycle
Our body is flooded by stress hormones and we perceive everything around us as a potential threat: for example, an urgent email makes us anxious, a sudden noise makes us jump and so on. We find it hard to prioritise tasks as everything seems to happen at once requiring our immediate attention and we may experience brain fog, fatigue, anger, irritability, unexplained aches and tension.
States of stress and tension influence our sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the production of stress hormones cortisol and noradrenaline, which raises our blood pressure and heart rate, therefore inhibiting the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
When we are stressed it can also put our brains in overdrive. The brain awakening centre further stimulates brain activity, vigilance and thinking, preventing us from sleeping.
In those situations, we need to take time to let go and to listen to what our mind and body need. While we may be tempted to soothe our anxiety with alcohol or recreational drugs, to boost our concentration with endless caffeinated drinks and to reach for junk food because it’s easier than preparing a healthy meal, these habits rob us of precious energy during the day and make us feel wired at night.
Sophrology is an effective technique to improve body awareness, manage stress and get sleeping patterns back on track: it has been used for decades to treat people with insomnia in sleep clinics and hospitals across Europe. Sophrology provides us with simple and accessible tools to empower us and help us to process and integrate our daily experiences.
How can Sophrology Help?
- When stress is not processed correctly, our daily experiences can create a stress or a fight or flight response without us even knowing it. As we accumulate this stress, it becomes difficult for the body to go back to a neutral, stress-free state, making us even more susceptible to stress and restorative sleep harder to achieve. This is called the negative stress cycle. Sophrology helps us build body awareness so we can recognise when we are in the negative stress cycle and help us safely get out of it.
- Becoming more aware of your body has proven benefits in terms of helping us to notice when we become stressed way before we reach a fully anxious state and helping us know when we need to give our mind and body the space it needs to de-stress and find balance. Sophrology assists in re-establishing a more conscious mind-body connection, to help us become more aware of how we feel throughout the day and when we need to take breaks to avoid feeling overwhelmed and overworked when night time comes.
- By acting on the sympathetic nervous system through a sequence of breathing, relaxation and visualisation exercises, Sophrology balances the nervous system when it’s agitated, releasing muscle tension, clearing the mind and helping to lower the body’s physiological response to stress.
- In Sophrology we can also quickly access the alpha brain wave state, which has been proven to be a deeply healing state, to calm the mind, relax the body and encourage peaceful sleep. When we are anxious, it’s sometimes very difficult to meditate because the mind is racing. In Sophrology, the practice is guided and focuses on gentle body awareness exercises; it calms the mind quickly by grounding you in the body. So you reach a meditative state quickly and effectively by focussing on the body instead of the mind.
- Sophrology also helps to create a positive mental association with sleep: people who have experienced sleep problems for a long time may have lost confidence in their ability to fall asleep and feel anxious when bedtime comes as they imagine anxiously lying in bed unable to sleep. Our bodies can’t tell the difference physiologically between a worry and an actual threat and respond to it in the same way so we might trigger our bodies into fight or flight mode simply by lying in bed worrying. Through the Sophrology exercise of visualisation, you start the process of shifting your state of consciousness from negative to positive and over time, it will help you to rewire your brain so you can see the sleep in a positive light again.
What Other Lifestyle Changes can we Make to Promote Sleep?
The secret to a good night’s sleep is in the preparation, getting to know our body and having a routine, because the body tends to do better when our days follow a routine such as having set meal times and going to bed at the same time. And just like healthy eating and exercise, consistency starts in the mind. Through a regular Sophrology sleep practice, we can prepare ourselves mentally to sleep like a pro and feel more motivated to start making lifestyle changes that will help improve sleep, such as:
- reducing or avoiding alcohol, sugar and caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee
- going to bed at the same time every night and aiming to get up at the same time each morning, even at weekends
- getting some fresh air in the morning and having breakfast
- avoiding looking at a screen at least an hour before bedtime and ideally keeping the phone switched off or in a different room at night
- using an alarm clock instead of your phone to check the time
- keeping a note pad next to the bed in case you get an idea in the middle of the night or remember something that needs solving
- exercising during the first part of the day and not in the evening
- creating a bedtime routine such as having a bath or an herbal tea
- keeping the bedroom at a slightly cool temperature
- ensuring you replace your mattress every 6-8 years to prevent back pain
- avoiding getting into arguments or being exposed to upsetting news stories before going to bed, focusing instead of managing your emotions
- eating an evening meal with foods rich in tryptophan, magnesium, calcium and vitamin B6 that promote sleep
- consistently practising Sophrology for at least 10 minutes a day.
If you want a more personalised guide to improving your sleep, talking to a Sophrologist can assist you in creating your own ‘sleep profile’ based on your lifestyle.
But if you want to give Sophrology a try today, you can start with this simple Sophrology exercise when you go to bed tonight:
Start by relaxing each and every part of your body with a Body Scan: with your eyes closed, breathe in and, as you breathe out, focus on an area from the head down to the feet, inviting it to relax.
You can visualise yourself sleeping soundly and deeply: in your mind’s eye look at your surroundings, how your bedroom looks and feel like, how comfortable your bed is. See yourself falling asleep quickly and easily, enjoying the deep relaxation and recuperation of sleep. Through repetition, getting into a relaxed mental state will become easier and so will falling asleep.
If you prefer to have a guided audio practice, you can download the Body Scan audio guide for free. And if you are ready to dive deeper into your journey towards achieving restful sleep, you can learn a whole range of techniques to help you sleep better and transform your everyday life in our Sleep Deeply with Sophrology online course.