(Literally) Following Your Dreams: Harnessing the Power of Sleep
During my pre-teen years, sleeping was a nightly battle. I suffered from adolescent insomnia, and each bedtime became a game of watching the clock as the house became silent, knowing that each passing hour meant an hour less of restful sleep.
Like many other aspects of middle school, however, my insomnia seemed to be merely a phase. By my late teens, I had almost completely forgotten about my bouts of insomnia, and slept glibly with the pride of someone who had always slumbered easily, as if I had a sort of special talent.
This smugness ended, however, with the addition of a husband, a major cross-country move, and a new job to my life. I felt that I absolutely could not control my mind during the nocturnal hours – it obsessively combed problems from my work, my health, and my relationship to hold up for mental inspection.
My insomnia had returned, albeit sporadically and only during periods of great stress, but my teenage worries had been supercharged by adult ones.
A catalyst for change finally happened when I attended a guided meditation class one evening, in which participants followed a long, open-ended story verbalized by our yoga teacher. After I had joined the ranks of gentle snores that drifted up from our prone figures, I experienced a nightmare that not only jolted me to wakefulness, but also induced a fear of sleep that lasted for days.
This time, not overcoming my neuroses was not an option.
The disturbing dream that I had experienced during the meditation class was a turning point, because the situation had become about more than just falling asleep. The heart of the issue was what sleep meant to me, and why I struggled in my tenuous relationship with it.
During that time of self-reflection, reading, and new practices, I discovered five general principles that have helped me to regulate my sleep with reasonably reliable results that have changed my life.
1. Practice good sleep hygiene.
When I think about the time I spend getting ready for work and the amount of paraphernalia involved – mascara, internet radio, and a French press, just to name a few – it seems evident that I value the launch of my day.
A similar level of preparation for bedtime is not just for children; adults can also benefit from common-sense habits and cues associated positively with rest, such as turning off electronics, going for a walk, or reading a reflective book.
2. Develop waking stress-reduction techniques.
This one could seem painfully obvious – a healthy meditation practice and ability to mitigate stress aids in wading through the frustrating mind-racing that many people experience nocturnally.
For me, once I became upset that I was awake, falling asleep was far less likely to happen. Once I became more skilled at letting go of fears and frustrations, acknowledging them and then letting them pass, falling asleep became easier.
3. Accept nocturnal wakefulness as a potential part of your sleep rhythms, and relax.
It’s possible, based on some recent studies, that sleeping in two large portions throughout the night (with a mid-sleep break of wakefulness) is a natural sleep cycle for many people.
I have experimented with occasional mid-night restlessness by getting out of bed, meditating, reading a book, or talking with my husband if he also happens to be awake. The key is to downplay the stressful aspect of being unwanted wakefulness by appreciating the quietness, presence, and mindfulness that is often not available in the light.
4. Remain open to nocturnal ideas and solutions.
I occasionally experience quite ingenious ideas during restless nights – smart plotlines for fiction, intuitive solutions to obstacles at work, or creative ideas to follow with friends.
The peace that I now experience with sporadic wakefulness allows me to appreciate and remember these flashes of brilliance that come to me only when my mind is beneath total consciousness.
5. Seek to understand nightmare symbols as keys to self-development.
Experience your dreams as personalized self-help workshops – the images that scare you are, after all, only harvested from your subconscious, which is a loving, intuitive presence in your psyche. So instead of avoiding frightening images or situations that surface in your nocturnal wanderings, seek to comprehend what strengths you seek to develop.
Days after the meditation workshop that induced the nightmare that relentlessly kept me awake, I realized just how much the disturbing dream offered to me. The symbols that I had formerly feared revealed my strong desire not to avoid them, but to emulate them – to cultivate personal skills that I lacked.
On a nightly level, my relationship with sleep was largely repaired by small actions like turning off my cell phone and adjusting the thermostat. But in my inner life, the true turning point was when my subconscious no longer frightened me, but seemed instead like a trusted friend communicating help in a new language.
Sleep disturbances can be a serious medical issue. This article only addresses minor, stress-related sleep issues in my experience that did not require medication. If you require medical attention, please make an appointment to do so. RVT