The Sleep Problem
Charles Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities with a famous phrase that says, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The thought is perhaps as applicable today as it was in the setting of his work.
These are the best of the times because if we can think of something, we make it possible. We reach for the stars every day and feel so good about it.
These are the worst of the times because our faster than ever evolution has resulted in our undermining certain incredibly important aspects of humanity—like our sleep. Our current bittersweet relationship with our sleep hasn’t had a long history. So how did we get here? What can we do about it?
As a matter of fact, tonight is going to be a big night, like any other night, because certain 10 million Americans will not be able to sleep well tonight. Around 200 million people worldwide will not be able to sleep well tonight.
Here are some more numbers about our sleep (the data is sourced from various researches and surveys listed at the end of the article).
- 33% American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis.
- 6 million sleepy people are driving on roads, walking on streets and generally yawning through their days.
- 7% reported falling asleep while driving at least once in the preceding month.
- 27% people have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep most nights.
- Americans spent an estimated $41 billion on sleep aids and remedies in 2015.
- Humans sleep 20% less than they did 100 years ago.
- The economic cost of insufficient sleep is close to 2% of GDP ($ 400+ billion for America)
Why is sleeping so important?
Let’s spend few seconds to remind ourselves why sleep is so incredibly important. Let’s not go over the obvious facts: like it increases concentration, attention, decision making, creativity, overall health; And that it decreases mood changes, stress, anger, etc.
These are all very valid reasons–but these are only the external manifestations of the underlying neuroscience processes. So let us instead talk about the neuroscience phenomenon that is perhaps the most foundational factor underneath it all.
The moment one mentions neuroscience, half of the audience loses interest because the concepts of neuroscience may be hard to understand at times 🙂
So let’s make it simple. Let’s imagine a running washing machine. Let’s imagine the dirty clothes in the machine and how the liquid detergent is getting the dirt out of clothes and draining it to the waste outlet. Now imagine brain surrounded by a large pool of cleaning fluid called CSF (cerebrospinal fluid). Imagine CSF pulling the wastes from inside the brain and draining it into the blood, which routes it to the waste outlets.
Our brain uses about 25% of body’s nutrients and oxygen to fuel the brain cells that in turn produce waste as a byproduct. One of the main elements in this waste is Amyloid-beta—it’s a protein that’s produced by brain cells at all times.
Now here is the part to pay careful attention to: The sleeping brain clears Amyloid-beta waste many times faster than the waking brain does. We can even say that sleeping enough is foundational to brain’s overall waste clearing solution. Inadequate sleep causes this harmful waste to remain in the brain for a longer period of time.
That’s one of the primary reasons why we have a clear mind when we have had enough sleep, and a murky one when we haven’t. In fact, Amyloid-beta not clearing from the brain is considered to be a key contributor to Alzheimer’s disease.
Why can’t we sleep when we want to?
So why can’t such a large chunk of population sleep—when sleeping is one of the most precious gift to humanity. How, only a few years ago, our ancestors could sleep effortlessly, at will, and we find it hard to do so?
A most common response to that question is: ‘Hey, the life has become very busy.’
Well, that’s true, but that argument doesn’t stand its ground when we look at the sleeping habits of some of the highly successful world leaders.
If these world leaders can afford a 7 hours sleep, most of us probably can too. In other words, issue of sleeplessness is not caused by lack of time to sleep, but because of the enemies of our sleep.
The enemies of our sleep
This is perhaps going to be the most shocking thing that you would hear today. You are the tribe leader of the enemies of your sleep! In other words, you are the biggest enemy of your own sleep.
So what does your tribe comprise of? Obviously, since you are the head of the tribe, you should know better that there are hundreds of members in your tribe, yet the majority of them belong to three primary parties. For sake of understanding them better, let’s imagine them in the context when you are trying to get sleep in your bed.
- Your own brain:
Your brain simply can’t stop chattering. And it just doesn’t allow you to easily put a break on this largely a nonsense chattering.
- Anxiety of the unknown:
The basic theme in this party is: Not having a clear view of what the world around expects from you. It leads to the anxiety about an unclear view of your readiness to deliver to the world around you—which, in turn leads to the anxiety about negative and unfounded consequences.
Note: Some people successfully mitigate this anxiety by maintaining a list of things next to their pillow so that if certain thought worries them, they simply add to this list to be able to worry about it later. This also helps them lessen the feeling of missing something completely unknown. Doing that certainly helps immensely, but doesn’t fully solve the sleep problem.
- Anxiety of the known:
The theme in this party is: excitement or worry about an upcoming event – like, anxiety about your marriage on the following day, or, anxiety about the election results and its impact on you, or, impact of an evening news on the market next day, or, an upcoming business deal, etc.
Are the traditional techniques effective in defeating the enemies of your sleep?
Times are a changing—the traditional techniques used in getting sleep aren’t much effective any longer and our sleep techniques need to evolve as rapidly as our life style has, in order to cope with it.
Here are some of the traditionally recommended solutions to help getting sleep.
- Avoiding working till late
- Making your bedroom darker
- Not thinking about work
- Not doing screen time before bed
- Avoiding caffeine too late
- Avoiding consuming alcohol
- Avoiding eating junk
- Avoid sleeping during afternoon
- Doing physical exercise at regular basis
Seriously? Other than exercising, which generally produces good results if done regularly, the other seem to address something which is far from reality. Even though it certainly helps to try these traditional techniques, none of these is as effective as a technique we want.
The reality is that the lifestyle has taken rollercoaster of a turn. For example, working till late hours, landing in a hotel at 1 AM, getting up early to attend a big event, thinking of excercising but finding no time—these events are becoming more frequent than ever. And the current trend doesn’t seem to slow down over next few years.
In other words, the sleep problem today is not as much about being able to sleep for 7 hours; it is more about being able to sleep when you are ready to.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is one of the very few ways known today that provide simple and effective techniques to get sleep without causing any side effects. As a matter of fact, the mindfulness techniques make your body healthier in general.
So what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a mental state, an ability, to be fully present in the moment, to be fully aware of where you are and what you’re doing. In this state, you are not overly reactive to or overwhelmed by what’s going on around you. Instead, you calmly acknowledge and accept your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
How does mindfulness achieve ability to sleep at will? Mindfulness helps controlling your thoughts, thus reducing the brain activity. Our mind loves being a doer. The overall aim of the mindfulness technique is to have you take charge of your mind and move it from state of “doing” to the state of “being”.
Effective techniques to defeat the enemies of your sleep
Here are two of the quickest and the simplest techniques that have helped a large number of people across the world in achieving state of mindfulness as a bridge to their ability to sleep at will.
First Technique: Focus on your breathing
Let’s Assume that you are in your bed in a comfortable position to make you fall asleep.
- Step 1: As you try to sleep, recognize that the thoughts swimming through your mind neither represent the truth nor they predict the future. Imagine your thoughts to be interfering signals to your true state of being.
- Step 2: Turn your mind into an observer of these thoughts so that you’re not attaching an emotional value to any of these thoughts—you are just looking at them and letting them pass.
- Step 3: Focus on your breathing—feel it coming in and going out. If your mind wanders, don’t bother and go to the step 2 again—that is, become and observer again.
- Step 4: Put 1-2-3 in a loop until you can’t any longer—because you are asleep
Note:This is not a class to teach how to breathe correctly—but it’s important to highlight that you must try to breathe from your stomach and not your chest. An easy way to figure out if you are a stomach breather or a chest breather is to put your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your stomach. As the air goes in and out of your lungs, make a note of the hand that moves the most. If it’s your left hand: congratulations, you are a stomach breather! If it’s your right hand: you need some work to do in becoming a stomach breather. If you are a chest breather, it means you don’t effectively use your diaphragm for breathing.
Second Technique – Body scan relaxation
Let’s Assume that you are in your bed in a comfortable position to make you fall asleep.
- Step 1: Give your mind a task to scan your body—to travel from its current position to every part of your body.
- Step 2: Observe and notice how it feels as it stops at each part of your body. Take note of any areas of tensions in your body.
- Step 3: Try to see which part of your body the most tense? Focus intently on this one area of tension and imagine that the muscles here are trying to let go of their hold, thus becoming loose, and becoming more relaxed. Your limbs would start to feel heavy and ready to sink comfortably into your mattress.
- Step 4: Put 1-2-3 in a loop until you can’t any longer—because you are asleep.
And finally, the obvious disclaimer about this article.
Disclaimer: Mindfulness Exercises enable you to develop awareness of stress in your body-mind. These mindfulness practices are intended for leisure and education purposes. These practices are not intended to diagnose or treat disease. As with any health issues, consult your physician prior to practicing Mindfulness Exercises. The information contained here is for general information purposes only. It is not affiliated with any health agencies or intended to offer medical or health related advice and must never be used as such. The content is not a substitute for qualified medical advice. The author accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any injury, loss or damage in any shape or form incurred in part or in whole as a direct or indirect result of any use or reliance upon the information and material provided here. Do not use any of the material in this article while driving or in any situation where it is not safe to relax and fall asleep.
References: All the numbers quoted in the article above and all the images used are from publicly available on the websites below. Even though the numbers are from reputed research agencies mentioned in below links, and are only used to support the article, the author is not responsible for their full accuracy. No copyrighted material is used in this article and if you are reading it and think otherwise, please reach out to the author through a comment and the author would be very happy to remove the part in question.