Dream your way to happiness
For some of us, dropping off to sleep at night and waking refreshed and energised in the morning is something taken for granted. But for many people sleep presents challenges.
Broadly speaking, sleep problems tend to present themselves in three ways. Firstly, we have the individuals who struggle to get to sleep at night. It is as if they cannot switch off their minds. Lying in bed, they do not feel relaxed, their minds alive with thoughts.
Secondly, we have those people who, once sleep is achieved, awaken suddenly in the early hours of the morning, perhaps having slept for just a few hours. This is not the sleepy half-awake response to a noise in the street; they have become fully awake. Getting back to sleep is then difficult.
Finally, we have those individuals who struggle to wake up in the morning. When the alarm goes off, they feel heavy headed, tired even if they have slept the whole night through. There is a strong temptation to stay in bed, but if they do, they feel groggy and tired no matter how long their lie-in might be.
It is not uncommon for one individual to experience a combination of these poor sleep patterns. So what is going on?
There are a number of physical health challenges that can cause insomnia: heart and respiratory disease, long-term pain, hormonal problems, joint and muscle issues, genital or urinary organ problems, certain neurological diseases etc. A number of psychiatric conditions can disrupt sleep too. In addition, disorders like sleep apnoea, restless legs syndrome or narcolepsy should be ruled out. As with all potential medical problems, visiting a GP is recommended.
In addition, the consumption of alcohol or drugs can disrupt healthy sleep, as can caffeinated drinks. A poor night-time routine – for example, watching bright screens in bed – can have a negative impact. Some prescription and non-prescription medications have the potential to cause insomnia – once again, a discussion with a pharmacist or your GP is advised.
With health conditions, poor lifestyle and medicines ruled out, the remaining culprit is most likely to be our old adversary – stress. Insomnia can develop after a single stressful event or can result from a gradual build up of stress (for an explanation of this, please see the article 'Filling up your stress bucket').
Once a disrupted sleeping pattern is established, it can continue even when the circumstances causing the stress have changed. In the case of the would-be sleeper unable to relax at night, it is often our mind’s in-built capacity to be highly alert in the face of ‘danger’ that is at the root of the problem. The accumulation of stress – whether instant or gradual – causes the mind to enter a vigilant mode overriding the need for sleep. In essence, our minds mistake the stress of day-to-day life for a threat to our safety and respond accordingly, keeping us alert.
Negative forecasting or introspection has the same result. In fact, simply worrying that we might not be able to fall asleep can be enough to keep us awake!
For individuals waking up in the early hours or feeling tired no matter how long they sleep, the answer lies in our bodies’ in-built stress reduction system otherwise known as REM sleep. REM stands for ‘rapid eye movement’ and is a stage of sleep characterised by quick movements of the eyes. For most people, REM takes up 20-25% of the total time asleep.
During REM we re-play stressful experiences – both actual and feared. REM is the stage of sleep associated with vivid dreams: our minds are working to move memories from the part of the brain we term the primitive mind to that part of the brain we call the intellectual mind. Memories in the primitive brain cause a strong emotional response, but we have better control of memories stored in the intellectual mind. For example, you might experience an unpleasant event during the day – say a dispute with a friend or colleague – and find that no matter how hard you try, you cannot stop thinking about it. However, after a good night’s sleep, the incident no longer feels so raw, and you can put it behind you. It is our REM-sleep dreams, whether they are a confusing metaphorical jumble or an actual replay of the events, that enable this to take place. It is worth noting that some people have no recollection of these dreams, but they are occurring nevertheless.
For the sleeper waking abruptly in the early hours, this is likely due to their brain working overtime to discharge accumulated stress. REM is enervating; our brains burn more energy during REM sleep than when we are awake! If we are at risk of ‘overdoing’ our REM, the mind can wake us up.
For the groggy over sleeper, the brain’s effort to deal with stress has actually exhausted them. There is a risk of a vicious circle developing. Sleeping more and more can exacerbate a state of depression and anxiety.
Hypnotherapy offers a drug-free way to improve the situation. Many therapists offer clients audio tracks to listen to at night. They are designed to slip a sleeper into a healthy REM sleep pattern and to maximise its benefits. Time spent on the couch listening to the therapist’s dream-like metaphors and guided imagery causes the brain to replicate the REM process even though many clients maintain a state of conscious awareness.
The benefits of this can be life changing. The therapist’s intervention helps the client to reduce the amount of stress in their life, to cope better with challenges that present themselves, to think more positively about the future and to process the accumulated stress of the past. As a natural consequence, providing the client takes the necessary steps, a reorganisation of sleeping habits can occur, allowing for a reduction in anxiety and an increase in well-being and overall happiness.
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About Jon Creffield
Jon Creffield (HPD, DHP, DSFH) is a CNHC registered Solution Focused Hypnotherapist specialised in using relaxation, guided imagery and metaphor to help clients achieve life-enhancing changes. He is a member of the National Council For Hypnotherapy and the Association For Solution Focused Hypnotherapy. Jon is based in North Somerset near Bristol.