“I’m not stressed, but it takes me two hours to fall asleep every night.”. That’s what I heard not long ago. Doesn’t it sound contradictory?
And I thought I would share the conversation that followed, as this is one of the top reasons for poor sleep: falling asleep in the first place. And of course, I will share a simple process to fall asleep quicker.
On stress, sleeping, and regulating the nervous system …
That person was very puzzled by the contrast:”I’m not stressed, I know that. But then why does it take me so long to fall asleep?”
He is happy with his life, he’s not anxious. He just has all these thoughts coming up as soon as he gets to bed. Things like planning the day ahead, thinking back to his day… And it’s not like he intends to do it, it is just happening, every evening.
I’ll give you a simple and effective embodied process to help with that, but first let’s talk about stress.
Stress is not anxiety
What struck me was that he’s mistaking stress and anxiety. We talk about stress a lot, but we still have a few misconceptions about what stress is.
The thing is, this person, he’s not overly worried about his life. He’s happy with his life. He’s not anxious about his situation. He just has a lot to do, as a solopreneur, and a Nomad. There’s always something going on, something to do, a decision to take, not enough hours in the day, maybe a move to plan – especially today as any travelling requires more preparation than before.
So there’s just a lot in his mind and he’s probably over thinking, which doesn’t make him anxious but sure does triggers his nervous system into some kind of unrest.
So what is stress? It is a physical response from your nervous system to a stimulus. This is a survival mechanism. This is actually good. In essence, thanks to stress, we could survive as a species until today.
Now, what we often mean by stress is chronic stress. How stress normally works is there is a stimulus, which triggers a response, and that’s over, the loop is ended. But in today’s lives what happens is there is a stimulus, there is the beginning of a response, but we cannot really let it play out until the end and it stays in the body-mind.
So don’t mistake stress for anxiety. You can be totally fine with your life and happy, and still have your nervous system activated.
What is an activated nervous system and can you regulate your nervous system?
You might know this already, but the nervous system works in kind of two complementary modes: The parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system has everything to do with “rest and digest”: everything that is sleeping, digesting, nourishing your body. You can think about it as a passive mode.
The sympathetic nervous system is the active mode, the “fight and flight and freeze” response. That’s the mode that gets activated by stimuli. There is something happening, I need to do something about it, I’m getting fired up to do things. For example one of the effects is the blood going into your muscles to get into action, the immune system being suppressed to keep going no matter what, etc.
Stimuli gets your sympathetic activated, which is basically a normal stress response. No big deal. We need it in our life or we would never be doing anything. We need to have responses to simulate. This is a good thing. It becomes a problem when we don’t act on it, when it stays in a head, which is what’s happening to the person in this article.
Does it mean he is depressed, or anxious? No. Again, he is perfectly fine. He just has an activated nervous system and he needs to find a way two calm it down, which is good news.
Can you regulate your nervous system? Yes, you can. And it is simple and easy. I’ll share a simple and effective process in a minute.
But first I want to talk about the basics.
Three basics of sleep hygiene
You probably heard this 3 simple bases before. Maybe you are like:”Duh, I know it.” Okay, you know it. But are you doing it? That’s the big question.
Stop doing things that keep you activated before going to bed.
At least half an hour before going to bed.
- Stop working.
- No social media.
- Ideally, stop any screen – light that sends your nervous system the information that it’s day and you need to to stay awake.
Calm down BEFORE going to bed, at least half an hour before.
Even better, when you go to bed, begin by five minutes of a kind of breathing meditation: It’s just about breathing deeply for five minute. If that feels like too much, five breaths, make it five breaths.
The important thing is to make the exhalation longer than inhalation. Why? Because inhaling activates your sympathetic nervous system, and exhaling activates your parasympathetic nervous system.
I know right now, some of you are like:”Nah, this is too simple.” But this works. It is physiological. You can trick your mind state by doing this really simple hack. So why not? Why not try it? Just five breaths, being just with your breath, noticing, inhaling and the longer exhalation; really simple.
Let your bodymind associate bed with sleeping
The bed is only for sleeping (and for sex). And I’m sure you heard that one too. But do you do it? When you go to bed and catch yourself beginning to think about you day, do you get up? Do you get out of your bed? I bet you don’t. Well that’s what it means: Train your mind and body so that it automatically associates bed with sleeping. Not thinking about your day, not wondering how are you going to make this or that of this, not remembering your day, not being grateful… Nothing. else. than. sleep.
That means that if you go to bed and you begin to notice that you mind gets activated, get up, get out of your bed, do some breathing, calm down and go back to bed; At the very least change position, sit up for example, to send the firm message to your bodymind that lying down in bed equals sleeping. Nothing else. Thinking about your day is something else. It’s not sleeping.
An embodied process to regulate your nervous system into sleeping and fall asleep faster
Apply these basics. And then, when you go to bed for sleeping, this is what you can do to be sure to fall asleep faster.
It starts with noticing your level of unrest in some way – your level of nervous system activation. Are you in more to the sympathetic or parasympathetic side of your nervous system? If you notice that you are still very active in your head, you know that you need to calm down and go more to the parasympathetic nervous system.
So that’s when you can begin by maybe sitting on the side of your bed or maybe laying down, if you feel calm enough already. Take five deep breath, and focus on nothing else but your breath. So you focus on the air going in, feeling the warmth in your nostrils and going down in your lungs, and then out. And remember: longer exhalations, focusing only on your breath.
And I invite you to listen to the audio or the video for the end of the process (jump directly to minute 9). It is all about using your somatic (physical) intelligence to keep your intellect quiet and activate the parasympathetic nervous system while the sympathetic nervous system automatically calms down.
It is a very simple process, relying on our physiology. So follow the steps, and I promise you: even if you wanted, even if you tried, you couldn’t not fall asleep. You couldn’t. It’s just physiological. It will happen.
If you know someone who has this kind of problem, share with them because that may not be you, but I’m sure you know someone who does: This is the most common problem why people have problems to sleep. It’s not so much that they have a bad quality of sleep, but most often than not, it’s just that they struggle to fall asleep in the first place. This is the first struggle I’m hearing again and again from clients and people I know about sleep. So if you know someone who needs to hear it, do them a favour and let them try this.
(Intro music for the podcast: “Tiny people”, by Alexei De Bronhe )