There is nothing like a sound sleep to keep one fresh and going. With me it’s much more; I sort of have a dependency on it. My mind almost refuses to function if I have not had a real sound sleep. So naturally, sleep has been an area of interest to me. Recently, I have had several discussions around sleeping problems with many people. It looks like quite a few have one or the other issues. Therefore I thought it makes sense to write a post on it. And as it looks, it turnt out to be an unusually long one.
Typically there are three problems: Getting in to sleep, maintaining the sleep and lastly not feeling fresh even after 8 hrs of sleep. When one or more of this happens regularly, that’s a sure sign that something is not really right
Most common and simplest of the problems is getting in to sleep. This is an indication that the mind and or the body is very active. First get the basics right: avoid exercises/ coffee/ smoke for 2-3 hrs prior to the sleep. Also avoid stimulating mental activities. A gap of 2 hrs between your meals and sleep is recommended and it is also advised not to drink plenty of water before getting to sleep.
Contrary to the general perception, alcohol does not induce a good sleep. The quality of the sleep is severely impacted by alcohol and in higher quantities, it interferes with the memory. The process of storing temporary memory to permanent memory happens at night through a process called ‘memory consolidation’ and alcohol has a direct influence with it.
Most of the restlessness in the body and the mind comes through an imbalance between the energies in the body and mind. If by nature your body energy is very high and mind energy low, you will have a lot of restlessness in the body. On the other hand, if your mind energy is very high and body energy low, you will have a lot of issues with obsessive thinking. In the first case, you need to include some relaxing activities in your daily schedule (like meditation) and in the second case you need to take up some solid exercising. Most issues with restlessness will be taken care of.
Getting in to sleep becomes a problem when the mind is under stress, caught up with some compulsive thinking, brooding over a conflict/problem or is excessively obsessed with some planning. More compulsive the thinking is, more the effort to break it and get to sleep. In the case of stress, it is very common that people wake up in the middle of night (~2-3AM) and even before they know get sucked in to thinking and unable to resume sleep. In such cases, it’s a good idea to break the thought train and that will let you sleep peacefully.
Gibberish meditation is a simple but very handy technique to switch off this stream of thinking, even for those who do not have prior experience with mediation. I have written a separate post on it and advise you to read it. If your mind is too busy and does not let you sleep, practice it just before going to bed. You will sleep like a baby.
For some people the problem is with scattered thoughts and off it goes from one thought to another. Such people will find it beneficial to do some ‘focusing’ just before going to bed. There is a great technique called ‘candle flame gazing’ that can help you (In yoga, this is called Trataka, in case you want to Google). Here is how you practice this. Place a glowing candle at arm’s length at the eye level. Sit relaxed and look at the flame of the candle. The flame should not flicker. After a while, when the eyes get tired gently close them and focus on the after image of the flame in the dark space before your eyes. When the image begins to fade/ move away, try to hold it steadily. When you can no longer hold the image, gently open the eyes and repeat the practice. Do it 4 or 5 times.
- Instead of the candle flame, you can use a dot (.) on a wall
- People who suffer from any eye aliments should not practice Trataka
- People who suffer from epilepsy should not practice Trataka on a candle flame, instead should practice on the dot.
- It’s not recommended to practice Trataka for a prolonged period of time, as it might leave a permanent impression on your retina. Once a certain level of focus has been achieved, use some alternative techniques to maintain it
- When you practice Trataka, lot of suppressed impressions and emotions will surface. Sometimes they may surface too quickly and can make you down. If that happens, do not practice this technique.
For people who have a strong unconscious mind (generally the emotional type of people), the problem is to do with the day’s events and other information need to be processed. Even when you are asleep, the unconscious mind keeps analyzing the events and tries to make sense. If you are a person who dream a lot, that’s an indication of this problem. This results in two issues. Firstly, you have no idea what the unconscious mind is doing with the information. Secondly, this consumes a lot of energy, so that you don’t feel fresh in the morning even after an 8 hour sleep. Here is a brilliant technique to handle this:
Let’s call it the ‘rewind technique’. Just before you sleep lie on your back, close your eyes , relax your body and start re-playing the entire day’s events backwards from the moment you closed your eyes. Just watch as you watch a film. Don’t start thinking about it. Try to go in to as much detail as possible, like what you felt, what thoughts were going on in your mind at that time, the sense perceptions etc. Should you get distracted in between (very likely), gently bring your mind back and continue. Thought it may sound very simple, this is a profound technique and if you can practice it on a daily basis, not only that you will sleep like a baby, you will also be freed from the unconscious mental processing that makes your life miserable.
Stress is another common problem that causes sleeping problems. Stress affects both the ability to get in to sleep and maintain sleep. The root cause behind stress is that you have too much identified with your thoughts. If you generally have a lot of emotional burden, practicing some witnessing technique will help. The essence of this is to make a bit of distance with your mind, by watching it. But it’s not going to happen in one day. You will have to cultivate it gradually. Here is how you can practice it:
Before you go to bed, sit with your spine erect and watch the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. Thoughts will distract you; gently watch them and come back. You might alternatively observe the rise and fall of your abdomen as you breathe in and out. The most important thing here is not to strain. Be as relaxed as possible and watch it with a sense of detachment. About 20 minutes would generally suffice.
If you have too much stress accumulated on your body (which is indicated by stiffness, tightening of muscles in more acute cases aches and pains), you can also watch your body from inside. Take your attention in to the body and watch your body from inside. Relax every muscle as you do this. The stress accumulating in the body is a common problem these days because of sedentary life styles and bad postures. Exercises and massages will also help to remove stress from your body. The exercises should involve stretching and relaxing of the muscles.
The sleeping posture bears an important correlation with the quality of sleep. There is a direct relationship between your thoughts and body movements. That’s when a specific kind of thought occurs in the mind, it creates specific body movement. The converse is also true. A stress on any muscle in the body in turn triggers a particular thought pattern in the mind. If you sleep with your body tightened in any way, it’s time to change it. This is more the case with those who sleep on their tummy and hands tucked below the neck. Lying on your back or side is a definitely a more relaxed posture.
The time just before going to sleep and just after you wake up is very significant. This is when the conscious mind is still not very active, but the unconscious mind is active. Normally this is the time you kind of hallucinate. People with very strong unconscious mind, this is the time very deep impressions are created and reinforced. These impressions have a deep impact on your personality, mood etc. Two things will help. One is that you sleep when you are really sleepy; try reading something before you sleep or try one of the exercises described above. Secondly, leave the bed as soon as you are awake. This is very important especially for those who feel down in the mornings.
If you are feeling tired even after 8 hours of ‘good sleep’, check out one of these possibilities. If the room is not ventilated, you may not get enough of oxygen at night and that could make you dull in the morning. For some people, it could be that your natural way of breathing is very shallow and it becomes more shallow at night. For such people, either a deep breathing technique (like Pranayams) or engaging in some aerobic activities would help.
There is a medical condition called sleep apnea, which obstructs the breathing during sleep. But it is hard to detect. If you have anytime woken up choked at night, perhaps this is one possibility. You will need to get medical help to sort this out.
Another reason why you feel tired in the morning is that the unconscious mind is very active during the night. The techniques described above (especially the ‘rewind technique’) will surely help. This is important for those who have a lot of emotional stress and confused patterns.
Some people who feel tired in the morning, despite a regular fixed sleeping pattern, might need to try increasing / decreasing the duration of the sleep by say 30 mts. The mind goes through different stages during sleep and when you wake up in some of those stages, you feel fresh and in some other stages you feel down , irrespective of the duration of the sleep. Sometime it so happens that you have a fixed schedule and you always get to wake up exactly during the phase where you feel down. If nothing else works, try to change the duration and see.
You will need to experiment with some of these techniques for a few days to see what works for you.