One of the things to remember and have compassion for during this Sleep Challenge is the challenge of insomnia. It can be just plain harder to sleep these days even when we try. People's stress levels are on the increase and that also means stress hormones are changing our sleep patterns. We are overloaded with too much to do, or over-stimulated with too much we'd like to do. Either way, the result is the same. If we don't get enough sleep, it builds up until we're exhausted, mentally foggy, irritable and running on empty emotionally.
Oh, we try to make ourselves feel more alert with coffee or an energy drink or sugary snacks. Then we crash and drag and get depressed. This yo-yo scenario is playing over and over for millions of us, especially women. Yet we keep on with this way of living. Of course we have our reasons.
Sometimes we can't wait until everyone's in bed and the house is quiet so we can finally do things we want to do but can't seem to get to any other time -- like just-one-more-web search that stimulates one more and one more until it's the wee hours of the morning.
Sometimes we watch TV to numb our brain before bed but as we sleep the theme of the last show we watched hijacks our brain, infiltrating thoughts and dreams, causing restless sleep. We wake up wishing we'd never watched that show.
Our mind replays at night what we habitually do during the day, like an endless loop tape. Just today we were talking with a friend who spends all day writing emails then during sleep he dreams he's still answering emails. Often he thinks he's actually sent an email and when the recipient says, "When are you going to respond," he realizes he only replied in his dream.
One of the biggest reasons for restless sleep or insomnia is those unresolved problems, big or small, that finally "have their time" to play out on the stage of our thoughts, feelings and reactions while we're trying to shut it all down and sleep.
If any of the above describes you or someone you care for, or if you've tried dozens of sleep remedies and none seem right for you, new research is saying there is a place we can turn to for help that most of us wouldn't even consider. That place is our heart.
How the Heart Can Help Us Get Some Much Needed Rest?
Our heart beats in a rhythm. Research at the Institute of HeartMath found that when we are over-stimulated, overloaded, stressed, frustrated, worried or anxious- that rhythm becomes jagged and irregular. The more stressed we are, the more chaotic and incoherent the heart rhythm becomes (see top half of graph below). So what can make our heart rhythm smooth out fast? Research shows that sincere positive feelings, like love, care, gratitude, appreciation, compassion or joy, smooth out our heart rhythm into a harmonious coherent pattern. These nurturing feelings also reduce the stress hormone cortisol and increase DHEA (the vitality hormone) to help us sleep more soundly and wake up feeling more refreshed.
What's interesting here is that both of the above graphs are of the same person feeling one way and then the other within a period of a few minutes. What's interesting is this smooth, coherent heart rhythm is the pattern that naturally occurs during deep, restful sleep. And what's exciting for those of us who are sleep deprived is that we can learn to move intentionally into this smooth pattern.
Here are three ways get your heart working for you and improve your sleep.
1. As you close your eyes to sleep, tell yourself you aren't going to overdramatize anything that happened during the day or any concerns you may have about sleeping. Then use this heart-focused technique we call Attitude Breathing® to help create the coherent heart rhythm that can facilitate deeper and more effective sleep:
- Gently breathe an attitude of calm, ease and relaxation for a minute or two.
- When relaxed, gently breathe an attitude of appreciation, gratitude or love for someone or something--a pet, a time in nature, etc.
- Do this Attitude Breathing for a few minutes or so. Coherent heart rhythms also help release beneficial hormones that reduce stress and restore your system.
2. If you can't stop your mind from working over an unresolved conflict while you're trying to sleep, here's how your heart can help:
- Breathe an attitude of respect for yourself and the other person.
- Check to see if there's something you need to correct within yourself to help the situation.
- As soon as you can, communicate genuinely with the person, with open-heartedness and latitude, and try to work it out. Ask questions to sincerely understand where he is coming from, even if you think you know. Apologize if you need to and listen from your heart with an attitude of genuine care. Being heart vulnerable often brings new insight and a release from the problem that's owning you. If you can't talk to the person, talk about the problem with someone who won't just agree with you but may provide another point of view. Even if the situation doesn't resolve right away, you can release yourself more knowing that you tried and sleep better at night.
- Breathing the attitude of self-compassion has helped many people in "hard-to-resolve" situations.
3. Getting your heart into a smooth coherent rhythm a couple times during the day is a powerful way to help stop stress build-up and re-energize during the day while training your body for better sleep at night. Here's how:
- In-between meetings, emails, on a break, or any time, give yourself two minutes or longer to shift your focus to your heart (look at picture of a loved one, remember a favorite pet, recall a time in nature or a vacation, etc.) and breathe love, appreciation or gratitude.
- It's important this be heartfelt (not just a mental intention) to activate heart coherence and the hormones that help release stress and bring harmony and stability to your mental and emotional processes.
- Then breathe the sincere feeling or attitude of appreciation through the area of your heart for a minute or two.
Taking heart coherence breaks a couple times a day has other benefits as well. It increases emotional resilience, and helps you listen to your heart's intuitive guidance on what else you need to do to release or prevent stress and find more balance in your life.
Using these simple HeartMath tools for a few weeks can actually help reset the heart's natural rhythms to bring you more restful sleep and more ease and balance as you move through your day. Surveys of over 3000 employees from over 100 companies who have used HeartMath tools reported on average 31 percent improvement in getting adequate sleep a 46 percent improvement in feeling exhausted, and over 40 percent improvement in getting upset easily, in worrying, and in work/home conflicts.
To get real-time feedback of when you are in heart coherence, you can use a fun, handheld heart rhythm coherence device called the emWave Personal Stress Reliever, which won the Consumer Electronics Show Last Gadget Standing People's Choice Award in 2009 and the American Institute of Stress Award for Innovation.
We invite you to download HeartMath's Solving Sleeplessness e-book.
If you think this is important information for the sleep-deprived but not readily accessible yet, what would you suggest to help get the word out? Send us your comments, suggestions, and thoughts on this. Put them in the comments section below or send us an email at email@example.com.
We also offer a Stress & Well-Being Survey™, the most comprehensive and accurate assessment tool that's available free over the Internet. The survey takes five to ten minutes to complete, and will provide you with a comprehensive picture of how much stress you are experiencing, your energy level and what areas are most stressful in your life. Results are followed by tips for improving your scores.
Doc is founder of the non-profit Institute of HeartMath, co-author of The HeartMath Solution and From Chaos to Coherence. Deborah is a psychologist and business executive, and co-author with Doc of Transforming Stress, Transforming Anger, Transforming Anxiety and Transforming Depression. You can find out more about HeartMath, Doc Childre, and Deborah Rozman and HeartMath at www.heartmath.com.
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more