If you toss and turn when the lights go out, or find yourself examining the ceiling at 3:00 a.m., you are not alone. The Department of Health & Human Services estimates that more than one-quarter of the U.S. population suffer from some form of insomnia during their lifetime. And approximately 10 million people per year visit physicians complaining of insomnia, even though the average time it takes someone to seek professional help is 14 years 1.
The personal cost of insomnia is much higher than an extra cup of coffee the next day -- it can be life threatening. A National Sleep Foundation Poll shows that 60 percent of people have driven while feeling sleepy, and in the last year, 37 percent admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel. And there are long term consequences, including that people who suffer from sleep deprivation are 27 percent more likely to become overweight or obese.
While the reasons for insomnia are complex and varied ranging from stress, depression, anxiety, fluctuating hormones, medications, to medical conditions, everyone can benefit from proven approaches that release many common obstacles to getting a peaceful night's rest. And it may come as a surprise that some of the best strategies to meet our contemporary sleep challenges date back to 4,000 to 1,000 B.C., arising from Babylonian and Sumerian cultures2.
The most comprehensive way to ensure a good night's sleep uses both external and internal approaches. So before we whiz back in time to learn the perennial internal strategies for deep sleep, let's review some of the external considerations provided by The National Sleep Foundation:
- Establish a bedtime routine and a consistent sleep-wake schedule.
- Have your last meal at least three hours before bedtime.
- Create a sleep-promoting environment especially turning off computers and television at least. 45 minutes before bedtime. A dark, cool, quiet room works best for most people.
- Exercise is linked to restorative sleep, but not with less than five to six hours before you are ready to sleep.
Once our external environment is sleep supporting, there is an even more significant way we can cultivate peaceful sleep. We can shape our internal environment using visualization. Visualization, also known as guided imagery and a close cousin of meditation and hypnosis, can shift brain wave activity, and specific images can be learned that promote the brain's movement toward deep, restful sleep.
Some of the earliest documented philosophies of the power of images for sleep come from ancient Hermetic philosophy. While the origins of Hermes are unclear, the earliest writings are often attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, with some of his books referred to as the pastophorus or "image-bearing." In Greek mythology, Hermes was often described as the bringer of sleep and dreams.
Visualization also shares roots with hypnosis. In ancient Greece, Hypnos preceded Hermes as the "God of Sleeping", and sleep temples existed in Greece, India and the Middle East playing an important healing role in the ancient societies. And while being in a hypnotic state is different than sleep, some of the deep relaxation methods are now adapted to relieve insomnia.
Another ancient tradition whose practices can help alleviate insomnia is yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, considered the foundation text for yoga, were written in approximately 200 B.C. The behavioral science journal, "Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback" published a study showing the benefits of yoga for both falling asleep and staying asleep. Because cognitive and physiological arousal is known to be a major factor in chronic insomnia, this study reported positive results using a form of yoga which included the calming benefits of relaxation and meditation.
Yoga Nidra, nidra being the Sanskrit word for sleep, is a branch of yoga which strongly incorporates guided visualization. And while yoga nidra is "dynamic sleep" in which you maintain a level of awareness more attentive than the sleep we seek at night, the tools for conscious relaxation carry over into creating the conditions necessary for deepening into restorative sleep.
When you've snuggled into your bed and are ready to sleep tonight, let these images carry you into deep restorative sleep.
Unwind: Imagine in your mind's eye a small ball of yarn. See this ball of yarn as holding the last little bit of residual tension you may have. Find the tip of the yarn and watch as the ball of yarn begins to roll slowly, unwinding as it moves. See the strand of yarn unfurling and resting on the floor, becoming longer as it continues to roll slowly. Sense the decompressing. Feel the spaciousness around it now. As you watch the yarn, feel also the unwinding of any residual tension within you. Like tiny muscle fibers softening, watch as the ball continues to release from its very core, the soft yarn now stretched out, open, and completely at rest.
Sleep Dome: With your eyes closed, imagine an energetic barrier shaped like a dome arching over you providing safety and comfort. This protective dome is where deep restfulness and sleep occur. Notice the shape, the size and the color of your protective shield, and adjust it until it is just right. Know that outside of the shield, anything you need to attend to during the day is separated from you. It will be there tomorrow, when the time is right.
Dial it Down: Just as you've adjusted the light in the room just the way you want it, whether it's pitch black or with some soft light, imagine doing the same inside yourself. Take a moment to imagine dialing down light behind your eyelids to a same restful setting within. Do the same with sound. You know all those voices that accompany you during the day, like the ones that remind you of tasks, imagine dialing down the volume on all those internal voices, and imagine keeping the volume off for the same amount of time you intend to sleep.
River of Sleep: Consider that on many occasions in your life, you've been carried easily from wakefulness into sleep, as easily as a leaf floating on a stream. Like a river with a set course, a part of you already knows the way to restful sleep. Let yourself be carried now, just let go. Feel yourself being carried on that safe and gentle current into deep, deep rest and finally sleep.
- Sleep and Sleep Disorders: A Public Health Challenge -- US Department of Health & Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Samuels, M, M.D., Samuels, L., (1975). "Seeing with the Mind's Eye: The History, Techniques and Uses of Visualization," New York, NY: Random House.
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Leslie Davenport is the author of the classic book on self-healing "Healing and Transformation Through Self-Guided Imagery." A pioneer in the health care revolution that recognizes psychospiritual dimensions as an integral part of health, she is a founding member of the Institute for Health & Healing at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, serves on the faculty of John F. Kennedy University, and is a clinical supervisor with the California Institute of Integral Studies. Visit Leslie on Red Room.