Understanding The Sleep Switch: “Letting Things Be”
In my sleep medicine practice, I hear patients talk about the difficulties in going to and staying asleep every day.
“I just can’t switch off my mind”, “my mind is too busy at night”, “I can hear a pin drop in my sleep”, “I toss and turn all night with aches, pains and discomfort”, “ I just wake up and then can not go back to sleep”, “I am not stressed out but I keep thinking at night”; many times people don’t even realize that the ability to go to and stay asleep depends on one primary factor: the mind transitioning from awake state to sleep state. And what might that entail, you ask?
It involves “The Sleep Switch”.
With society and culture changing over the last one hundred years, there has been an increasing emphasis on “do more”; do more in school, do more at work, more responsibilities, higher stakes, greater financial commitments, and often times social situations requiring so much problem solving, that at the end of the day, people find their minds buzzing. It has become harder for people, millions in the US alone, to easily go to and stay asleep, and get deeper, restful sleep.
In principle, how often have you pondered on what is the process of going to and remaining asleep?
Sleep, a term we have all grown up with, could truly be replaced with another word: maintenance.
Maintenance of neurologic activity including memory, emotions, alertness, word finding and problem solving.
Maintenance - involving metabolism, weight, immune system, hormones and sex drive.
Going to or “falling” asleep fundamentally involves the mind switching modes. Switching from mental alertness and daytime problem solving, memory making and task oriented thinking, to a “maintenance” or “housekeeping” mode.
In order for all the maintenance work to be performed during a sleep cycle, there are other factors too, such as the ability to spend enough time sleeping at the right time of the day. And the ability to breathe freely through the nose while sleeping.
But still the critical factor is how the mind switches attention from waking mode to sleep mode.
For many people, this ability to switch modes comes naturally. They are asleep the moment their head hits the pillow. For others, it is a daunting challenge.
For the mind to be able to switch from awake to sleep modes, and to stay in sleep mode all night long, a necessary requirement has to be met:
The mind has to feel safe.
The mind has to feel that in a primitive sense, no potential threat to the individual’s existence will arise during sleep. This involves not only a sense of safety for the person but their family, home and belongings.
Let me illustrate with a few examples:
A new mother became an insomniac after her infant kept her wake all night for several months, nursing often. Several years later she was still grappling with her sense of alertness in sleep as if her child would need her any moment.
A veteran reported developing insomnia after spending time in a battle zone, constantly on alert that his life could be endangered while he was asleep.
A child developed insomnia after being molested in sleep by a family member. Decades later, as an older adult she still could not feel safe in her bed at night.
A firefighter stopped sleeping soundly after working long shifts at the fire station, constantly alert to when he may be called to action.
These examples aside, there are people of all ages who have otherwise perfectly normal lives, but their sense of alertness remains active, affecting their sleep.
A sense of “everything’s going to be alright” is therefore a prime requirement. Then again, for some people it comes naturally, and others struggle with it.
The “everything’s going to be alright” mode is what I call the “letting things be” switch. Unless this switch is turned on, alertness can not be turned off, sleep can not be initiated or maintained.
So then you ask, how is this goal of “letting things be” to be achieved at bed time?
Like anything else, there are two ways, not necessarily mutually exclusive, but fundamentally different in approach.
- Force the mind to switch modes, by using a “chemical sleep inducer”.
- Train the mind to calm down, relax, and “let things be”.
The term “chemical sleep inducer” I used here pertains to the fact that “natural”, “over the counter”, “prescription” or other substances are all chemicals of some sort. They are consumed for their effect on the brain.
To “train” the mind to switch to sleep mode is something that is totally doable, can be learnt easily, and is obviously the healthy way of doing it.
I work with my patients every single day helping and training them in mental techniques which, with guidance and support, allow the person to learn to “let things be” and go to sleep easily, not having to depend on a pill, or any other sleep inducing agent.
“Letting” implies that you notice, observe and acknowledge the presence of everything happening in your mind, your body, your life and your environment in that moment, when you are in bed intending to go to sleep, and you consciously decide to allow it to be there; not pushed away, not kicked out, not thrown out, not fought with; because all of those lead to activating the mind which is in contrast, an alertness inducing activity.
Sleep is a basic and fundamental function of the body. All those who find it frustrating need to learn to “let things be”, to be able to switch on sleep and feel rested, rejuvenated, and energized every day; with no side effects and no addiction. It is easy to recognize the need, but it is also easy to achieve it. All it requires is the motivation to do it.
Sleep should be recognized as a fundamental human need.