‘I keep waking at 3.05am every morning and I can’t get back to sleep. I hate it – feels as if I’m the only one in the world awake. I feel so lonely’ a client said to me recently. Sarah was so distressed about it that she was becoming ‘sleep phobic’ –
my label. I see a lot of this with people who are so anxious about what will happen when they go to bed that they avoid doing it. In the evenings Sarah would disappear into technology, mindlessly surfing the internet, checking her social media feed, browsing shopping channels while watching TV. My friend Kat calls this a ‘technology trance’. And it is a trance-like state isn’t it? Almost hypnotic, compulsive, seductive, sucked in and hard to climb out. What is this place? Where do we go?
As someone who is often called a ‘technology addiction expert’ (a label I abhor), I’m often asked to comment on why I recommend a 60 minute electronic sundown before getting into bed at night. Actually, this is one of the ‘5 non-negotiables’ in my sleep programme. Why? I could wax lyrical about blue light, melatonin and the pineal gland. I could describe the hyper-stimulated Reticular Activating System and dopamine. But I actually think it’s simpler than this…and, as many things simple tend to be, quite profound.
We sleep when we feel safe – another important strand to my sleep work. I say this and shoulders drop with recognition. Sleep is an act of faith and trust – especially if you’re a sensitive human being. That delicate time before midnight 9 to 11pm – oh it’s a sweet and tender time. It’s a time when, according the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), our energy naturally tends to move inwards and organ systems are set up to rebalance and restore. Our emotions tend towards introspection and finding internal safety. This is why we read nice bedtime stories to our children to help them drift off to sleep and have sweet dreams. It’s a time when we adults too need a perfect bedtime story – something that inspires safety and trust. Something that instills faith that no matter what’s going on out there in the mulch of life – the failed relationships, elderly parents, errant teenagers, bulging inbox, depleted bank account, Brexit – we can let go and sleep. Let go and restore ourselves by doing the thing we’re programmed to spend 1/3 of our lives doing so that we awaken with the energy and fortitude to go again into the day.
9 to 11pm is a sweet and tender time but if we really allowed ourselves to stop and feel we might notice the presence of another quality too – maybe a feeling of loneliness. But too many seek to avoid this loneliness squashing it down with yet another episode of the box set while reaching for another piece of chocolate, and/or pouring another glass of wine while seeking another dopamine hit (how many ‘likes’ since I checked 10 seconds ago?). This subtle loneliness cannot be assuaged by swiping… We do not produce oxytocin – the hormone of trust – by looking out there. And, in the absence of oxytocin, we will not produce enough melatonin to carry us through the night – hence the 3.05am wakeup call when all is quiet, the subconscious is at its most creative, and the hyenas are at the door.
Long winded sell for the electronic sundown maybe but I’m trying to help you solve one of the most common sleep problems – waking between 2 and 4am, unable to restore sleep. Again, TCM tells us this is an important time to sleep or at least rest; it restores the liver and rebalances hormones of anger, fear and resentment. Repeatedly skip this phase of sleep and you could end up chronically exhausted and listening to your GP use words like anxiety and depression.
As always, I like to recommend a few practical steps:
- Oscillate during the day – get off the treadmill of doing, and especially ‘mental doing’. Stop every 90 minutes or so and feel. Feel your feet on the ground. Feel bored. Feel hungry. Feel overwhelmed. Feel afraid. Feel your shoulders. Feel your jaw. Feel thirsty. Feel sad. Feel lonely. Just stop and feel. Recognise when you’re numbing out with social media, work, conversation, TV, food, exercise, fags, drugs, sex, whatever your drug of choice might be…
- Especially allow yourself to feel before you get into bed and at some time between 9 and 11pm even just for 5 minutes.
It might feel uncomfortable to start with but you’ll become more adept at seeing how quickly uncomfortable feelings pass or how easy it is to sit with the discomfort of them. It might feel odd – ‘I don’t feel anything’. Maybe you feel numb and this wouldn’t be surprising if your day’s been relentlessly mental. Keep doing it and you’ll start to strengthen your ‘felt sense’. Feeling brings you back into your body and sleep is, after all, a felt/body experience not a mental experience (no amount of monitoring that sleep App data is going to help you sleep).
Trust me, feel more and your sleep will thank you.
Yours in amazing health and energy.