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Published on May 22, 2019

5 Sleep Therapy Techniques for Better Overall Health And Wellness

5 Sleep Therapy Techniques for Better Overall Health And Wellness

While evidence continues to pile up that sleep is the very backbone of mental health, few of the many Americans who are having trouble getting proper shut-eye choose to try sleep therapy.

We’re sadly encouraged to boast about how busy we are or how little sleep we’re getting in a “do-more” culture. Combine busy schedules with caffeine, blue LEDs, ambient city noise, and a host of other maladaptive environmental factors and it’s no surprise that one in three adults is apparently failing to get even seven hours of sleep.[1]

Economically, one study estimates that inadequate sleep costs the U.S. $411 billion annually.[2] More importantly, under sleeping puts our health in jeopardy. Your immune system, memory, microbiome, emotional calibration, and rational-decision making all rely on good night’s sleep for proper functioning. In one shocking study, surgeons made 20% more errors when they’d under-slept when compared to their well-rested counterparts.[3]

Many people turn to sleeping pills to find some respite for their sleep ailments, but the problem with pills is that they simply sedate the cortex without providing natural biological rest. In other words, medications don’t necessarily improve the quality of sleep, just the amount of time you spend unconscious. Just as alcohol can make you drowsy while actually destroying your valuable REM periods of sleep, pills should not be your go-to either when it comes to finding more snooze time.

Why Is Sleep so Important?

“The decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our life expectancy, our safety, our productivity, and the education of our children.” – Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep

The importance of sleep is often overlooked in our busy modern lives. Yet the very fact that evolution couldn’t design an organism without it (even bacteria follow a circadian rhythm of activity) should tell us how important sleep is for our wellbeing.

Sleep has been shown to make us more creative, happier, more attractive, slimmer, less anxious, and more resistant to disease. Furthermore, it lowers the risk of heart attacks, enhances memory, and allows us to live longer. (For a full analysis of the scientifically-proven health benefits, I recommend reading Why We Sleep, written recently by a top neuroscientist sleep researcher.)

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Given our increasing understanding of the importance of sleep, it’s no surprise that sports teams, like Manchester United, have started hiring “sleep coaches” specifically to ensure that their players get the best night’s sleep possible. These coaches travel around with the team and ensure that air quality, lighting, mattress firmness, and a variety of other factors are optimized to ensure the best night’s sleep possible.

Sleep can not only give professional athletes a big edge over their competitors, but it can also give you a whole lot more mental clarity throughout the day. So if you’re waking up feeling groggy, generally lethargic throughout the day, or just not receiving those crucial eight hours of shut-eye, here are a few therapeutic solutions you might consider.

The Antidote

Luckily, there are effective sleep therapy techniques that can help even the most restless sleepers get more shuteye.

1. Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI)

The most widely-used method of sleep therapy is CBT, which has been shown effective in many patients after 5 to 8 weeks of treatment.

CBT addresses negative thought and behavioral patterns. If you’re tossing and turning in the sheets, it’s often a mental pattern, such as excessive stress or anxiety that’s contributing to the sleep problem. In short, the CBT method involves identifying negative thoughts and beliefs, challenging them, and establishing a more helpful way of thinking.

For example, many people who have traditionally had problems getting to sleep begin worrying and catastrophizing about their inability to get to sleep, which compounds the problem in a snowball effect. CBT allows patients to break out of this harmful routine and create a better relationship with their own mind.

This method is often more specifically applied to insomnia in what’s called Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI). You can read more about this method, here.

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2. Sleep Restriction Therapy (SRT)

The goal of this therapy is to limit the overall amount of time that the patient spent in bed not sleeping, creating a stronger association between bedtime and actual sleep.

Developed by legendary psychologist Arthur Spielman, SRT follows a strict schedule for gradually increasing the amount of time you’re allowed in bed. You begin with the amount of time actually spent sleeping each night on average.

Let’s say you go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 7am but only sleep for five hours. You’d start with 6 hours of allowed rest, going to bed at 11pm and waking up at 5am, for example. You then gradually add sleep in 15 minute or half hour increments each week until you’re sleeping a healthy amount. There are several variations on this procedure and you might consult a sleep doctor or therapist for more detail.

SRT has been shown to be the most effective sleep hygiene technique.[4] The downside, of course, is that it’s not a quick fix. It does take weeks of diligence to recondition your sleep schedule and see results.

3. Meditation/Yoga Nidra

Meditation can also be used as a form of sleep therapy. Mindfulness, a state of mind achieved through meditation, has been defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist who created Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), as,[5]

“the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.”

By learning to experience one’s thoughts, emotions, and sensations closely without judging them, meditators can calm down and prepare their minds for sleep.

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Mindfulness meditation allows individuals to shine a light into their inner mental programs in what’s called introspective metacognitive awareness. In doing so, you’re able to form a better relationship with your thoughts, ease anxiety and alleviate a host of other mental turmoil that may be preventing sleep.

There’s a specific method of Vedic meditation called Yoga Nidra that is an excellent way to slip into sleep.[6] The practice involves breathing deeply, setting an intention, rotating one’s awareness around the body (which tires out the somatomotor regions of the brain, which process sensory information, and then often counting backward.

The practice may also include visualizations, depending on the particular set of instructions. Yoga Nidra has been practiced for thousands of years and is effective at shutting off the “narrating mind,” the voice in your head that won’t keep quiet when you’re trying to get to sleep. Especially in the early stages of doing Yoga Nidra, it’s helpful to listen to a teacher or guided audio recording.

Here’s an example of Yoga Nidra:

4. Hypnosis

Hypnotic techniques put patients into a relaxed and suggestible state wherein their thoughts and beliefs can readily become “reprogrammed.” For those unable to change their harmful negative thought loops using CBT, they may find hypnosis a suitable alternative.

The hypnotherapist employs subtle suggestions to “relax,” “let go,” and other trigger words. While your brain’s rational CEO in the neocortex is largely responsible for rumination and other thought patterns that might be keeping you awake, hypnosis allows the hypnotherapist to permeate your subconscious mind and plant code there that will help you fall asleep quicker.

5. Breathing Exercises

Breathing directly affects your autonomic nervous system, which in turn influences your mental activity. Sometimes, trouble getting to sleep is associated with an over-active “fight or flight” sympathy nervous system, and breathing is a quick way to put the breaks on this mechanism.

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There are several aspects of the breath that influence your mind-body system. Here are 3 important aspects of a calming breath that can immediately influence how your mental state:

  • Breathe smoothly: The opposite of this would be a jerky, staccato breath. Rather, you’d like there to be a constant flow of air entering and leaving your lungs between pauses.
  • Breathe rhythmically: What’s important here is that your breath has a consistent ratio of inhale to exhale. To further calm yourself, you might try exhaling for longer than the inhale in a fixed ratio of say 4:6. Four seconds of inhalation, followed by 6 seconds of exhalation. When practicing, it can help to use a metronome to find a rhythm at first (free phone apps are available).
  • Breathe into your belly: So-called “belly breathing” uses your full diaphragm and ensures that you’re using your lungs as they are designed. If you’d like to see proper diaphragmatic breathing just watch how a baby breathes naturally.

All three aspects of breath work to activate the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system, calming down your body and mind.

Bonus Sleep Tips

You also might consider these sleep hygiene strategies to improve your sleep, which include:

  • Going to bed and wake up at the same time every day
  • Making your room as dark as possible and relatively cool in temperature
  • Avoiding your bed unless you’re sleeping
  • Not eating or exercising right before bed
  • Taking a hot shower before bed
  • Getting sun exposure in the morning
  • Journaling your thoughts before bed or reading fiction
  • Avoiding naps after 3pm
  • Avoiding alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and other drugs
  • Dimming house lights and shutting off electronic screens two hours before bedtime, or at the least use a blue light filter like f.lux
  • Bonus: using a white noise machine if you live in a noisy neighborhood

If problems persist after implementing these changes, it might be worth contacting a professional sleep physician or specialist to improve your sleep.

The Bottom Line

Sleep is not just a “hack,” it’s a necessity. While people spend billions on supplements, exercise machines, and diet books, there’s a free area of great improvement that would benefit many.

In my opinion, if there’s one aspect of our lives we don’t pay enough attention to, it’s the whole third of our lives (if you’re getting enough of it!) spent slumbering on the pillow.

After reading this article, you have all the tools you need to optimize your sleep and, in doing so, potentially transform the quality of your waking hours.

Featured photo credit: Zohre Nemati via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] CDC: 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep
[2] Rand: Sleep Report
[3] The Lancet: Sleep Deprived Versus Rested Surgeons
[4] Kaiser Permanente: Sleep Restriction Therapy
[5] Front Behav Neurosci.: Into the Moment
[6] Yoga International: 5 Benefits of Yoga Nidra

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Liam McClintock

Founder of FitMind, Corporate Mental Wellness

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

The Best Way to Create a Vision for the Life You Want

The Best Way to Create a Vision for the Life You Want

Creating a vision for your life might seem like a frivolous, fantastical waste of time, but it’s not: creating a compelling vision of the life you want is actually one of the most effective strategies for achieving the life of your dreams. Perhaps the best way to look at the concept of a life vision is as a compass to help guide you to take the best actions and make the right choices that help propel you toward your best life.

your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have

    Why You Need a Vision

    Experts and life success stories support the idea that with a vision in mind, you are more likely to succeed far beyond what you could otherwise achieve without a clear vision. Think of crafting your life vision as mapping a path to your personal and professional dreams. Life satisfaction and personal happiness are within reach. The harsh reality is that if you don’t develop your own vision, you’ll allow other people and circumstances to direct the course of your life.

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    How to Create Your Life Vision

    Don’t expect a clear and well-defined vision overnight—envisioning your life and determining the course you will follow requires time, and reflection. You need to cultivate vision and perspective, and you also need to apply logic and planning for the practical application of your vision. Your best vision blossoms from your dreams, hopes, and aspirations. It will resonate with your values and ideals, and will generate energy and enthusiasm to help strengthen your commitment to explore the possibilities of your life.

    What Do You Want?

    The question sounds deceptively simple, but it’s often the most difficult to answer. Allowing yourself to explore your deepest desires can be very frightening. You may also not think you have the time to consider something as fanciful as what you want out of life, but it’s important to remind yourself that a life of fulfillment does not usually happen by chance, but by design.

    It’s helpful to ask some thought-provoking questions to help you discover the possibilities of what you want out of life. Consider every aspect of your life, personal and professional, tangible and intangible. Contemplate all the important areas, family and friends, career and success, health and quality of life, spiritual connection and personal growth, and don’t forget about fun and enjoyment.

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    Some tips to guide you:

    • Remember to ask why you want certain things
    • Think about what you want, not on what you don’t want.
    • Give yourself permission to dream.
    • Be creative. Consider ideas that you never thought possible.
    • Focus on your wishes, not what others expect of you.

    Some questions to start your exploration:

    • What really matters to you in life? Not what should matter, what does matter.
    • What would you like to have more of in your life?
    • Set aside money for a moment; what do you want in your career?
    • What are your secret passions and dreams?
    • What would bring more joy and happiness into your life?
    • What do you want your relationships to be like?
    • What qualities would you like to develop?
    • What are your values? What issues do you care about?
    • What are your talents? What’s special about you?
    • What would you most like to accomplish?
    • What would legacy would you like to leave behind?

    It may be helpful to write your thoughts down in a journal or creative vision board if you’re the creative type. Add your own questions, and ask others what they want out of life. Relax and make this exercise fun. You may want to set your answers aside for a while and come back to them later to see if any have changed or if you have anything to add.

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    What Would Your Best Life Look Like?

    Describe your ideal life in detail. Allow yourself to dream and imagine, and create a vivid picture. If you can’t visualize a picture, focus on how your best life would feel. If you find it difficult to envision your life 20 or 30 years from now, start with five years—even a few years into the future will give you a place to start. What you see may surprise you. Set aside preconceived notions. This is your chance to dream and fantasize.

    A few prompts to get you started:

    • What will you have accomplished already?
    • How will you feel about yourself?
    • What kind of people are in your life? How do you feel about them?
    • What does your ideal day look like?
    • Where are you? Where do you live? Think specifics, what city, state, or country, type of community, house or an apartment, style and atmosphere.
    • What would you be doing?
    • Are you with another person, a group of people, or are you by yourself?
    • How are you dressed?
    • What’s your state of mind? Happy or sad? Contented or frustrated?
    • What does your physical body look like? How do you feel about that?
    • Does your best life make you smile and make your heart sing? If it doesn’t, dig deeper, dream bigger.

    It’s important to focus on the result, or at least a way-point in your life. Don’t think about the process for getting there yet—that’s the next stepGive yourself permission to revisit this vision every day, even if only for a few minutes. Keep your vision alive and in the front of your mind.

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    Plan Backwards

    It may sound counter-intuitive to plan backwards rather than forwards, but when you’re planning your life from the end result, it’s often more useful to consider the last step and work your way back to the first. This is actually a valuable and practical strategy for making your vision a reality.

    • What’s the last thing that would’ve had to happen to achieve your best life?
    • What’s the most important choice you would’ve had to make?
    • What would you have needed to learn along the way?
    • What important actions would you have had to take?
    • What beliefs would you have needed to change?
    • What habits or behaviors would you have had to cultivate?
    • What type of support would you have had to enlist?
    • How long will it have taken you to realize your best life?
    • What steps or milestones would you have needed to reach along the way?

    Now it’s time to think about your first step, and the next step after that. Ponder the gap between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. It may seem impossible, but it’s quite achievable if you take it step-by-step.

    It’s important to revisit this vision from time to time. Don’t be surprised if your answers to the questions, your technicolor vision, and the resulting plans change. That can actually be a very good thing; as you change in unforeseeable ways, the best life you envision will change as well. For now, it’s important to use the process, create your vision, and take the first step towards making that vision a reality.

    Featured photo credit: Matt Noble via unsplash.com

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