Falling for Sleep

Published in AEON

In Evelyn De Morgan’s numinous painting, Night and Sleep (1878), Nyx, the mighty Greek goddess of night, hovers across a dusky sky with her beloved son Hypnos, the sweet-natured god of sleep. The painting and the Greek gods it captures depict a radically different way of understanding and relating to sleep. In antiquity sleep was personified, transcendent, even romantic.

Both Nyx and Hypnos had personality. Nyx was beautiful, shadowy and formidable – the only goddess Zeus ever feared. A Mother Nature figure with attitude, she was most protective of her son, even when he engaged in divine mischief. Which he did. But Hypnos was also gentle and benevolent, an androgynous mamma’s boy. Occupying a liminal zone between sleep and waking, he often seemed a bit dreamy. If he showed up at a sleep clinic today, he would likely be diagnosed with narcolepsy – a disorder of heightened permeability in the boundary between waking and sleep.

Nyx and Hypnos were denizens of the underworld. She was the original night owl, a fierce guardian of nature’s circadian rhythms who magically transformed day into night. With her support, as seen in De Morgan’s painting, Hypnos gently scatters crimson poppies, sleep elixirs, over the planet below. As in the more recent tale of the Sandman who sprinkles sleepy dust over the eyes of children, we are reminded that sleep is bequeathed from above. That sleep is grace.

Nyx and Hypnos were a dynamic duo of sorts – supernatural heroes who romanticised night and sleep. Nyx gave birth to sleep and created an aesthetic of darkness where Hypnos could flourish. And Hypnos loved sleep. Surrounded by fields of wild poppies on the River of Oblivion, his lair was a sanctuary – a cool, magical retreat open to all in celebration of the sensual, even sexy, mysteries of sleep.

Today, mother and son have been largely forgotten. Nyx has been in exile for well over a century as our night sky is eroded by light pollution. And Hypnos is remembered mainly by his namesakes, hypnosis and, surely to his chagrin, hypnotics. Sleep is no longer personal, transcendent and romantic – it is medical, mundane and pragmatic. 

Read the full article on AEON.

 

7 Good Reasons to Stay Sleepless: Insomnia and Secondary Gain

Published in The Huffington Post

sleeplessMaybe you’ve heard this one: A woman goes to see a psychologist and tells him her husband thinks he’s a chicken.

“Well,” says the psychologist, “we have effective treatments for that. Why don’t you bring him in?”
“I don’t know,” responds the woman. “We really need the eggs.”

Like many sleep specialists, I wondered why our effective treatments for insomnia didn’t seem to be significantly impacting the epidemic of sleeplessness. I wondered why so many of my patients struggled with following through on recommended treatments. And I wondered why so many people with insomnia didn’t even seek treatment and instead opted for drugs, substances, or just muscling through.

The answer to these questions is secondary gain — the indirect, potential benefits of not treating a health concern. Secondary gain is not a conscious or manipulative attempt to leverage illness. It is, rather, a kind of behavioral trap that snares and keeps us stuck against our will. Secondary gain does not mean we are in any way enjoying our sleep struggles. Like the golden handcuffs of an unsatisfying job or the emotional security of a dysfunctional relationship, the challenges of secondary gains around sleeplessness are both common and tricky to navigate.

The first step in addressing secondary gain is to identify the specific ways in which it affects us. Here are seven of the most common patterns of insomnia-related secondary gain I have observed:

1. Most obvious, spending less time asleep means more time awake. Being awake can allow us to feel more productive, can provide more time for ourselves, or can help us feel less pressured, less rushed. Independent of insomnia, restricting sleep has long been seen as a badge of honor.

2. Chronic sleep loss fogs our mind and blunts our emotions. As uncomfortable as the resulting daytime sleepiness might be, it can take the edge off waking life by rendering us desensitized or numb. In some ways, being chronically sleepy is similar to being somewhat inebriated.

3. Excessive daytime sleepiness provides legitimate excuses for avoiding personal, social, and professional obligations. Our unmanageable sleepiness can get us out of attending social events, can explain poor performance at work or school, can justify inattentiveness to family and friends, and can explain our failure to follow through on an exercise or weight management program.

Read the full article on The Huffington Post.

 

How to View the World Through Dream Eyes

Published in The Huffington Post

dream eyeWhen we think of dreaming, we typically think of being in a different place — another state of consciousness, a dream world or dreamscape and certainly not in Kansas anymore. In reality, however, it only looks like we’re not on Auntie Em’s farm. Dreaming, after all,  is more about a different way of perceiving. It’s about seeing with dream eyes.

Extensive research confirms what we all have long known: that our perceptual processes are markedly enhanced during dreaming. We can, for example, simultaneously see what lies directly before us and behind us as well as the room we’re in and the building housing it. Our sense of self — that is, how we see ourselves — can also morph wildly in our dreams.  Viewed through dream eyes, I can be me, or a part of me watching me, or someone else entirely.

Viewed through dream eyes, I can be me, or a part of me watching me, or someone else entirely.

 In contrast, ordinary waking life is framed by waking eyes that see through a highly focused, detailoriented,and, at times, myopic lens of intention.  Experiences, events and things in waking life are deemed interesting or meaningful only when they align with our intentions. Our waking eyes typically fail to even notice things that do not appear within the frame of our intentions.

The psychologist and poet R.D. Laing described the limitation of waking eyesight in a short but poignant verse:

The range of what we think and do
Is limited by what we fail to notice
And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice
There is little we can do to change
Until we notice how failing to notice
Shapes our thoughts and deeds.

Seeing only with our waking eyes results in loss of peripheral vision.  If the devil is in the detail, the angel is in the bigger picture.

 Read the full article on The Huffington Post.

 

A Tiny Bladder Isn’t the Only Reason You’re Waking Up in the Middle of the Night

Published in The Huffington Post

Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea” is about a young regal girl whose sleep is disrupted by a tiny legume tucked beneath a stack of twenty mattresses. Her heightened sensitivity was said to be characteristic of royalty. If so, it may be that we all become royal in our sleep.

The dark and quiet of night coupled with the vulnerability inherent in sleep leave us all with heightened sensitivity. We become more aware of sounds, scents and signals from within such as heartburn, leg kicks or achy joints. Of course, we are also more sensitive to bodily needs related to temperature, thirst, hunger and, most notably, the need to urinate.

Frequent nighttime urination or nocturia is a problem that affects millions. Defined as a chronic need to urinate at least two or more times during sleep, nocturia is common among men and women of all ages but increases to an estimated 50-60 percent of those older than 60. The associated sleep disruption can have a deleterious effect on one’s health, mood and productivity.

People with insomnia frequently blame their bladders for their inability to sleep through the night. Although bodily signals are more difficult to sense when we are in deep or REM sleep, once we are awake, they can seem amplified against the stillness of night. Consequently, we may be more reactive to relatively small amounts of urine in our bladders than we are by day.

What really wakes us up?

Our princess didn’t know about that damned pea — she just couldn’t sleep.

Read the full article on The Huffington Post.

Love Means Never Having to Say Goodnight

Published in The Huffington Post

liminal waterfallMaybe you’ve just made love. Maybe you’ve stumbled into bed, exhausted. Or maybe you’ve been reading or watching television and find yourself nodding off. So, you turn to your partner, say goodnight, and go to sleep. I imagine this is the most common bedtime story for couples in our world.

It reflects a ubiquitous belief that sleeping and dreaming are essentially solo experiences. As much love and connection as there may be between two people, there are some things we simply do alone. Although we might share lovemaking, dialog, or dance, when we go to sleep, we go away. We leave one another to descend into our own, private realms of consciousness.

The passage from waking to sleep takes us through a liminal dream. We wade into a shallow stream of consciousness that washes through our thoughts and feelings, dispersing the mind in preparation for sleep. We’re called upon to let go — to release tensions and, most notably, our intentions — to be able to cross the border into slumber.

Technically referred to as Stage I sleep, the transition from waking to sleep is characterized by complex neurological changes, including increased alpha EEG, decreased premotor cortical activity, and the galvanization of mirror neurons. Alpha EEG, of course, is a sign that the brain and body are relaxing. The associated quieting of the premotor cortex, a set of small areas just north of our temples, signals a critical diminishment of intention. This, in turn, engages our mirror neurons — the neural networks that mediate empathy.

What all this suggests is that in those fleeting moments when we are drifting off, we become especially empathic. It’s not a surprise that our capacity for empathy is inversely related to the extent of our intentions. As our intentions diminish, our psychological posture shifts from desire to receptivity. For many of us, our capacity to be fully present, openhearted and deeply empathic is greater during the transition into sleep than at most other times of day.

As children, we instinctively knew that the descent into sleep could be a social experience. In hushed post-bedtime conversations with our sibs or more playful exchanges with our friends at sleepovers, we would go gently into the night —together. Under the approaching cover of sleep, we would whisper dreamy thoughts and share secret feelings and far-fetched fantasies. As kids, we knew how to surrender waking, how to descend through a fuzzy and fading liminal dream dialog.

Reimagining Your Bed

Published in The Huffington Post

Typically undercover by day and out of awareness throughout the night, the bed is the most primordial of furnishings in our lives. We are conceived, born and die in a bed. We make love, sleep, dream, heal and are entertained in our bed. We burrow deeply into it in times of sorrow and awaken to a new day from it each morning.

Our very first bed was a cradle of loving arms with an undulating soft chest as a mattress. It was alive, sensitive and responsive to our subtlest needs. Sleep was a dynamic process, a natural collaboration between the sleeper and this living cradle. Unfortunately, this sense of an organic sleep experience is quickly forgotten as we grow up. The bed devolves into a thing – an inert piece of furniture or equipment where we stash the body for its overnight recharge.

I don’t mean to sound animistic and suggest the bed is alive in any literal sense, but I am suggesting that it is more like a vehicle than a static piece of furniture. Children, who intuitively sense that sleep and dreams carry them to another world, are frequently drawn to beds in the shapes of cars, trains, wagons, boats and airplanes. Although beds and vehicles may appear to be complete opposites in one respect, they actually have much in common. Both transport us to another place. And although often taken for granted, both cars and beds require a dynamic relationship with their owners. Just as we think about car and driver, it’s useful to think in terms of the bed and sleeper.

A good car integrates performance, comfort and safety. We expect it to perform – to provide us with reliable and efficient transportation while requiring minimal maintenance. Of course, we also prefer that it transport us comfortably. And we fully expect that it will do so safely. Cars can also be personalized, allowing us to configure seats, mirrors, sound systems, GPS, temperature, and other variables.

Read the full article on The Huffington Post.

10 Strategies for Managing the Day After a Bad Night’s Sleep

Published in The Huffington Post

Most everybody has experienced at least a night or two of poor sleep. And many millions of us do so on a regular basis. A bad night’s sleep can leave us feeling anxious about making it through the next day. Will we have the energy, the focus, and the emotional wherewithal to do so? Is it even possible to have a good day after a bad night?

Yes, it is. I’ve frequently been surprised by people reporting okay days after seriously sleepless nights. In large part, this is a testament to the human capacity for resilience. But it’s also a direct result of using sensible strategies to manage the day after.

1. Adjust your attitude. Begin by accepting and even forgiving last night’s sleeplessness and today’s sleepiness. Judging yourself about poor sleep will only further sap your energy. Can you think of a time when you or someone you know did all right despite little sleep? Stay open to that possibility. Let family, friends, or coworkers know you had a rough night and ask for their support.

2. Go with the flow… and slow with the ebb. Like all living things, humans are biologically programmed to ebb and flow through cycles of energy and rest throughout the day. Our energy levels will naturally fluctuate even after a good night’s sleep. And, of course, these fluctuations will be more pronounced after a challenging night. Use energy when it flows and let yourself slow and rest when it ebbs. Resisting or actively battling waves of tiredness will only squander more of the limited energy we have. When we yield to our need for rest, we’ll likely experience a refreshing buoyancy.

3. Plan to procrastinate. When our energy is compromised, it makes sense to minimize any and all non-essential activity. Get clear on your objectives for the day and let yourself put off until tomorrow anything that doesn’t absolutely need to be done today. Yes… this is a day when procrastination can actually be helpful. As Ellen DeGeneres once said, “Procrastinate now — don’t put it off!”

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Looking for Sleep in All the Wrong Places

Published in The Huffington Post

Despite dramatic increases in the number of sleep specialists, national sleep education initiatives and the use of sleep medications, healthy sleep continues to elude tens of millions of us each night. In fact, there are indications that the insomnia epidemic is worsening. Consequently, millions of us desperately search for sleep. And we do so in three common arenas: medicinals, mattresses, and what I’ll call magic.

We look for sleep in medicinals — in prescription and over the counter medications, in botanicals and nutraceuticals, and in substances like alcohol and marijuana. The notion of swallowing something to help us sleep is ancient. Many prescription and over-the-counter medications, botanicals and nutraceuticals, and substances like alcohol and marijuana are, in fact, soporific; that is, they leave us feeling sleepy.

But there is no evidence that any medicinal, including so-called sleeping pills, can actually replicate natural sleep. In fact, beyond the serious health concerns associated with their use, I believe long-term dependence on medicinals can undermine our sleep self-efficacy — our innate ability to fall and stay asleep.

I’m not suggesting that sleep medicinals are never useful — they can be of great short-term help in times of acute stress, illness or personal crisis. But in the end, they are little more than Band-Aids, and real, sustainable healing for sleeplessness will not be found there.

We look for sleep in mattresses. It’s tempting to think that a smart search and selection of a mattress will solve our sleep problems. But, looking for the right mattress today can be as challenging as buying the right car. And in some cases, just as expensive.

There’s an astonishing array of both traditional and high-tech options available today. We have innerspring, foam, pillow top, gel, airbed, visco, latex, hybrid and other varieties to choose from. And we have additional options around adjustability, firmness, temperature regulation and green variables.

In many ways, a good mattress is like as a good car. The mattress is a kind of vehicle that we want to transport us comfortably and safely to the land of sleep and dreams. But just as purchasing a good car does not make one a good driver, a good mattress does not make one a good sleeper.

And then there’s magic. By magic, I mean a wide array of practices that we’ve come to believe will facilitate sleep. We might sleep with magnets, teddy bears or wool socks. We might listen to tapes, take a hot bath, curl our toes or recite special affirmations. And we might compulsively engage in the sleep hygiene recommendations we’ve all heard about.

All of these practices can certainly be helpful. In fact, some are absolutely necessary. But I call them magic because, in and of themselves, they remain insufficient. Like medicinals and mattresses, even if they seem to help in the short term, they will not provide us with sustained sleep.

Effective medicinals, good mattresses and magic practices can be essential components of healthy sleep. They might help us maintain, support or even improve the sleep we already have. They can even help us clear the way for sleep to return. But when sleep is lost, we will not find it in these places.

Read the full article on Huffington Post.

 

My Q and A With Sleep Specialist Rubin Naiman on Paying Attention to Our Dreams

Published in The Huffington Post

Painting of sleeping girlDr. Rubin Naiman doesn’t want to just raise awareness about the importance of sleep. He wants to change the way we think about it, by blasting through the assumptions and misunderstandings that have for so long defined — and limited — the conversation.

A clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, Naiman is particularly interested in dreams. In answer to my questions, he passionately and eloquently makes the case that we can truly benefit from opening ourselves to our dreams and meeting them on their own terms rather than trying to view them through the lens of waking life.

Why do we dream?

Great philosophers have taught that we routinely mistake the limits of our personal perception for the limits of the universe. Nowhere is this fundamental error more evident than in our posture toward dreams and dreaming. Because we live in a world where dreaming is so utterly misconstrued and commonly dismissed, we fail to recognize the critical role it plays in our health and happiness. I’ve come to believe our blind spot around dreaming is at the root of so much that is wrong with our world today.

REM sleep has been shown to be essential for learning and memory consolidation. In fact, diminished REM sleep is a hallmark of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. REM sleep also actively regulates our feelings and moods. It’s not a surprise that mood disorders, depression and anxiety, are frequently associated with a pattern of disrupted dreams.

Recent research suggests that REM sleep essentially functions to process waking-life experiences. Sometimes referred to as the second brain, our gastrointestinal system intelligently processes — or sifts through, digests and assimilates — the food we consume. Likewise, in REM sleep the brain sifts through, digests and assimilates the vast array of information and experiences we “consume” by day. Acting like a second gut, it selects what will be purged and what will be permanently assimilated into our long-term memories — into who we are. We are remade and updated nightly during REM sleep.

Just as updating a computer requires temporarily shutting down its operating programs, REM sleep takes us “offline” by inhibiting the use of most of our senses and voluntary muscles. We are disconnected from the world around us, functionally disembodied as our sense of self is updated nightly.

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Get Down And Get Dogged: What Canines Can Teach Us About Sleep

Published in The Huffington Post

dogMy dog, Isaac, was a handsome, blue-eyed Siberian husky who loved playing Frisbee. And I loved witnessing his wild passion for the game. He would seem dreamlike, almost defying gravity in slow-motion flight while twisting and lunging to capture his prize. But if ever I paused our Frisbee play to answer my cell phone, Isaac would stop in his tracks, glare at me with his head cocked, and then plop instantly down to sleep.

Like other canines, Isaac had a robust sleep-wake rhythm — a remarkable capacity for achieving peaks of activity and depths of repose. He would get thoroughly animated in pursuit of a Frisbee, his poodle playmate or, his absolute favorite, the neighbor’s tabby trespassing in our yard. But in a matter of seconds, with a change in circumstance, Isaac could drop into deep sleep like a stone into water. No, he wasn’t narcoleptic. With regard to his sleep-wake rhythm, Isaac was simply dogged.

Dogs and humans have similar sleep cycles that include a mix of stage and REM sleep. Humans, however, normally experience four or five of these cycles consecutively through the night, while dogs can have 20 or more much shorter ones scattered throughout the night and day. Dogs doggedly get up and get down in a distinct sleep-wake rhythm known as segmented sleep.

Sleeping and waking in shorter segments results in a tighter weave or integration of these states of consciousness. A dog’s ability to repeatedly get down suggests that they never venture all that far from sleep. They keep it close at hand and readily accessible. I’ve never met a dog who couldn’t nap on cue. Although Isaac would not have cared for the term, he was an exceptional cat napper. (Not to mention cat nabber.)

Historical evidence suggests that humans had more of a segmented sleep-wake rhythm prior to the industrial revolution. Rest and repose were naturally woven into the waking day and periods of nighttime wakefulness were common and considered perfectly normal. The rise of industrialization, however, restricted sleep to a limited portion of night and simultaneously escalated demands for relentless productivity.

Unlike dogs, humans now expect to sleep though the night and remain wide awake throughout the day in highly consolidated periods. While dogs keep sleep within easy reach, consolidation overly distances us from it. And while dogs modulate their passionate waking lives with regular repose, we have segregated and even bifurcated the states of sleep and waking. As a result, our waking consciousness has devolved into a relentless mental buzz and bustle known as hyperarousal.

Read the full article on Huffington Post.