Relearning how to fall asleep

To normal sleepers, the idea of relearning how to fall asleep may sound pretty strange.  How can you forget a perfectly natural physical process like falling asleep?  Isn’t it like breathing?  It’s so simple, you just do it!

Unfortunately for insomniacs, this process is often anything but simple.

Many insomniacs are so sleep deprived, so exhausted, so stressed out and frustrated at their inability to sleep, they can hardly remember what the process of falling asleep feels like.

There is a treatment sleep clinics sometimes use to address this specific issue, and it apparently works. It’s known as Intensive  Sleep Retraining (ISR), but it’s probably unlikely many of us would ever use it.

That’s because it usually requires a minimum of 25 straight hours hooked up to an EEG in a sleep lab.

With ISR, the subject is immediately awakened after 3 consecutive minutes of any stage of sleep activity as measured by the EEG. This understandably builds up an acute level of sleep deprivation, so even the most chronic insomniacs generally experience dozens of sleep onsets during the 25-hour session. By repeatedly experiencing many sleep onsets in a compressed time frame, the recipient by association quickly relearns what the experience of falling asleep feels like.

Studies show ISR works.  But this intensive technique is probably out of reach for the majority of us who just want to learn how to sleep better on our own.   For those of us who don’t want or can’t afford ISR, the method still has a meaningful message about what’s behind the process of falling asleep.

Perhaps most importantly, we can learn there is in fact an identifiable process of falling asleep, and it is generally consistent night after night.  Over time, we can learn to trust and rely on this process to lead us consistently into satisfying sleep.

We can describe this process generally as drowsiness.  A feeling of letting go , of letting one’s thought’s wander, of physical relaxation.  The process cannot be forced in any way; forcing is usually counterproductive and only leads to a state of heightened and worried wakefulness.

Instead of forcing, what we can do is create conditions that allow us to get drowsy.   Then just let sleep happen on its own from there.

Drowsy is stage one sleep. It’s not true sleep, but drowsy is what’s necessary first.  Drowsy then leads to the deeper and truly refreshing stages of sound sleep.

There are a number of ways to intentionally create conditions that enable drowsiness at the right time.  They include setting a consistent sleep schedule for your unique needs, a dark quiet relaxing bedroom environment, daily exercise, maintaining a positive social support network, and learning how to turn down the dial a bit on stress and anxiety.  All these components are important and work together to help you get drowsy when you want.   They all work together to produce better sleep.

We can also greatly enhance the process of falling asleep by surrounding ourselves with consistent cues, both physical and mental.  These cues can be part of a relaxing normal bedtime routine.  This might include doing such things as getting your clothes ready for the morning, brushing your teeth, reading a relaxing book, and so on. Over time we learn to associate our consistent routines with an expectation of sleep and the good feeling of letting go.

Another aspect of relearning how to fall asleep is to recognize the signs of feeling tired.  Sure-fire signs are yawning, wandering thoughts, droopy eyelids.  Chronic insomniacs may not associate these signs with drowsiness, but all of these signs suggest you’re ready for sleep.

If you are the self-help type, you can easily learn methods that combine physical and mental processes to support good sleep — they are components of cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), and it works.

You can learn CBT-I from many sources — counselors, sleep doctors, books, and online self-help programs.  Much of this material is readily available online, and free or inexpensive.  One such online program is the downloadable Sleep Training System.

If you are looking for a comprehensive CBT-I solution, we invite you to consider the STS.  It will help you relearn how to get drowsy at the right time and fall asleep, so you can consistently awaken refreshed from a good night’s sleep.

Explore posts in the same categories: Health, Insomnia, sleep

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