Sleep and Stress Relief

As we work with thousands of people a year, we find that a large proportion of them have difficulty really sleeping well. Since information on nutrition and exercise are more commonly found than information on quality sleep, and since you will spend from one quarter to one third of your life sleeping, we’d like to take some time here to help you better understand the importance of quality sleep to provide relief from stress. If you don’t sleep well, you might find some lifesavers here, and if you do have good sleep habits, this section will affirm and clarify much of what you have intuitively learned.

National estimates are that 25 percent of the population has difficulty sleeping, and that as many as 80 percent of the population are sleep deprived. Being sleep deprived also means that we’re deficient in REM or dreamtime cycles, an important source of inner balancing and guidance. Twenty percent of doctor visits are related to exhaustion, and more than half of the burnout cases that find their way to a doctor’s office are people suffering from sleep deprivation. And the vast majority of people who suffer from sleep deprivation are not even aware of it!

Pause for a moment to let this soak in. If sleep is so fundamental to our health that we spend nearly a third of our life doing it, is it any wonder that if so many people are not getting enough sleep, that so many things in our world are so out of balance?

Sleep deprivation is due in part to the unrealistic expectations of our lifestyles that often drastically underestimate how much sleep we need--ideally seven and a half to nine hours per night. It is also due to the fact that many people simply have trouble sleeping even if they have the time. In many cases, sleeping problems are stress related. People get so wound up, accumulate so much stress and tension, and drink so much caffeine during the day that they have difficulty unwinding and shifting out of a stress arousal mode in order to fall asleep, and stay asleep. And, often people’s systems are so out of balance that they have developed physiological problems that contribute to the difficulty of getting enough sleep.

Natural Rhythms of Rest

As you begin to rebuild healthier patterns of sleep, it is important, first of all, to understand that our natural waking and sleeping patterns are very different from the culturally imposed norms. The sensitive biological being that you are is made to awaken peacefully with the singing of the birds or the first gentle rays of the dawn--not with a screaming alarm. Second, as you may have noticed, your energy and alertness levels naturally wax and wane throughout the day with some periods of clarity and alertness, and other times when you are so drowsy and dull you can barely keep your eyes open. These rhythms and cycles of activity and rest are clues to your natural balanced state.

Looking at the “working” and “resting” cycles of other living creatures, we gain some interesting insights into how out of balance we humans are. For instance, think of the intensity with which a hummingbird works, flapping its tiny wings with lightning speed and its little heart beating at hundreds of beats a minute. Yet the hummingbird spends 82 percent of its time resting, not flying around. A lion spends only 6 percent of its time on the prowl, and 75 percent of its time resting, while a walrus rests for 67 percent of the day. Observing our closer mammalian cousins, the spider monkey rests for 63 percent of its time, and the gorilla rests a full 51 percent of the day. In the case of each of these creatures unfettered by our societal expectations, periods of activity and rest weave naturally together into the balancing rhythms of each day.

The Importance of Sleep

Quality sleep is essential for a balanced life. During sleep, the body rests, cleanses, and purifies itself. It repairs, rebuilds, grows, and heals itself. During sleep, the stresses, strains, and tensions accumulated throughout the day are ideally released, and, in our dreams, to some degree resolved. In dreams, the mind is open to creative levels of the psyche, and we are able to tap the well-spring of deep inspiration, insights, and even premonitions that may profoundly inspire and guide our lives. And in deep sleep, our brain slows way down, and all the “mental programs” that we run cease to operate, allowing us to rest in a state of pure being. When our circuits are jammed with stress, and we tumble into bed exhausted, and wake ourselves up with alarms, we are less likely to realize the full benefits sleep has to offer.

Improving The Quality Of Your Sleep

A powerful key to learning how to rest effectively comes through understanding the stages of sleep and anticipating your own sleep cycles. The stages of sleep, each lasting about ninety minutes have much to teach us about balance. When you first fall asleep, you pass through a brief period of intense semi conscious mental imagery and then spend a short while in dreams. Next you dive into a deeper, more peaceful and dreamless state. During this time, your brainwaves slow way down into the delta frequencies, of one to three cycles per second, and you rest in a state of deep dreamless sleep. It is in this state, called “Stage IV sleep,” where you get your deepest and most healing, harmonizing rest. In this dreamless stage, we rest in a profound state of inner balance where our body rests at ease like a drop resting in harmony with the ocean of the universe.

After some time, your biological clock leads to a shift in your biochemistry and an increase in brain rhythms as they accelerate to a theta frequency of four to eight cycles per second. Once again you enter REM, or rapid eye movement sleep, where you are likely to experience dreams. Though many people when asked will say that they do not dream, this is not because they aren’t dreaming, but simply because they are unable to maintain enough mindful vigilance while they are in these more subtle states of mind-brain function to notice or remember them. As mindfulness grows in our waking life, we are more likely to be aware of our thinking and fantasies throughout the day. This lays a foundation of awareness necessary to begin to recognize and remember our nightime dreams. As our waking mindfulness deepens, we may even learn how to “lucidly dream”-- which is like becoming a virtual reality composer working with the limitless creative potentials of our own internal dreamscape. When mindfulness is perfected, this lucid, peaceful presence of mind can be maintained even during the most deep and quiet periods of dreamless sleep.

At about ninety minutes after falling asleep, we reach the most superficial stage of sleep. Here we are more likely to awaken or to be aroused by sounds or movements around us. And then as the earth turns, the whole cycle begins again. Once again, we go deeply asleep, though likely not quite as deep as during the first sleep cycle. Then again we dream, and then move into a more superficial sleep where we are more likely to be awakened by sounds or movements around us, or worries or pains within us. In this way, the sleep cycles continue throughout the night carrying us rhythmically through balancing cycles of deep sleep, dreaming, and shallow sleep. With each ninety minute cycle our sleep is more shallow. At the end of each cycle we “rise toward the waking state,” until finally at the end of one and a half, three, four and a half, six, seven and a half, or nine hours we naturally pop through into ordinary reality and wake up.

Understanding these natural cycles of sleep, you can come to some very useful insights:

  • First, your deepest sleep happens during your first sleep cycles and the amount of rest you gain is progressively less with later cycles. If you have only a limited amount of time to sleep, then plan to sleep for one and a half, three, four and a half, or six hours.
  • Second, if you need to set an alarm, ideally set it to go off at the end of a ninety minute cycle. Again this would be at 1.5, 3, 4.5, 6, 7.5, or 9 hours. If you wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle you are more likely to feel groggy and disoriented.
  • For most of us mammals, our deepest, quietest metabolic time of the day is in the wee hours of the morning, an hour or two before dawn. If at all possible, this is a very wise time to stay asleep.
  • You need to dream. Quality dream time is essential to living a healthy and well balanced life. In studies where people are prevented from dreaming, they quickly become agitated, disoriented, and dangerously imbalanced. Next to breathing and drinking water, it seems that dreaming is the most essential vital function of our life.

The healing, harmonizing, and balancing power of dreams can also be understood by realizing that the body is actually a biological oscillator embedded within the larger resonant fields of the earth. In dreaming sleep and in deep meditation, the predominant brain wave frequency matches the rhythms of the pulse of the planetary electromagnetic field called the Schumann Resonance Field. Thus when we sleep and dream, our little biophysical oscillator comes to rest and balance in sympathetic resonance with the rhythms of the larger planetary field. This, combined with the profound and miraculous biochemical changes accompanying sleep, results in our awakening feeling refreshed, renewed, and realigned.

[Adapted from the book "Living in Balance" by Joel Levey
and Michelle Levey]

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