As you might expect, there are many ways to view ‘sleep’. It’s not an option for us humans! Below, I offer two ways of viewing the patterns that most of us follow, most of the time. The first relates to the Stages of sleep.
The second translates those stages into the ‘heavy’ and light’ as well as the REM cycles. The main point all this draws out is that we start in a ‘heavy’ state – with our body lively – in recovery’ mode – and our dream state suppressed. Later in the night, our bodies become very still and our brain appears to start its housekeeping. For those of you who then awake ‘with a start’, it is possible to feel our bodies paralysed, but this will last for only a few seconds. I say this as it may be a nasty experience, but it is a temporary one. Indeed, when an event disrupts our sleep, it is possible for most things to return to close-to-normal after a short time.
If this does not happen, and your ‘old normal’ sleep pattern does not return, then the design of a safe experiment might help.
Limitation warning: No safe experiment works for all and everyone, every time. This especially applies to sleep management. It is management that is involved – not a ‘cure’. I recommend you to build up your own ‘tool box’; one that can help you feel more confident about getting enough sleep, most of the time. The more you ruminate on the issue, the less likely it is to resolve – that is true for some many emotional and psychological issues.
Here is the sleep cycle. It is hard-wired into our bodies. It is not an optional extra. Our neural networks sustain these cycles even though those same networks can disrupt them.
Note that each cycle last between 90 – 120 minutes; you might be a 90 minuter and I might be a 120 minuter. Half of that cycle is spent sliding down into a more relaxed state. In the second half we become increasingly alert.
Over time we develop a routine that suits us but it is not difficult for it to be thrown out of kilter.
Note, also, that there are two cycles of ‘deeper’ sleep, marked 1, and 2. The brain is reasonably inactive at these time. Instead there is a great deal of bodily activity as body tissue is repaired after the wear and tear of the previous day. This is the physical recovery housekeeping stage!
Later in the night there are more ‘shallow’ cycles, marked 3, onwards. The yellow band shows when rapid eye movement (REM) sleep can occur. REM sleep comes and goes throughout the night. During REM sleep, the brain is particularly active and the body is stilled. It is worth noting that REM sleep appears to be associated with ‘more’ dream activity, but not exclusively so.
The stages 1 – 4 are associated with increasing and decreasing levels of alertness, where 1 is more alert and 4 is least alert. When we are more alert, it is easier to cross into a state of wakefulness and become more fully alert, as marked with the hatched line.
Note that the cycles later in the night are closer to the alert boundary. This is important because individuals who are anxious or under stress are more likely to awaken and go through that boundary more easily.
When we come close to that ALERT line it is possible to become awake, maybe aware of a dream. That is one reason why many of us report waking around 1 a.m. or 3 a.m. (assuming we retire around 11 p.m). At that point it is possible to become pre-occupied with that dream, or some other immediate thought. Our return back into sleep, via that half-cycle of relaxation can be impeded.
There is a lot of difference between individuals.
How are these cycles disrupted?
Among other things, by sudden changes to our routines; by destabilisation of our current normal (say, by moving home, job changes, death and separations) and by high emotion. Sleep is not an optional extra. After several sleepless nights, we find ourselves dropping off during the day. We may find it more difficult to make decisions and our mood may be affected.
Some safe experiments
What follows are prescriptions. This goes against my best judgment and the intended ethos of this web site. Therefore, please bear in mind that any direction can be effective only if adapted to your present lifestyle and routines. Some things in the lists to come may make immediate sense; focus on them and meet the others, bit by bit.
- Change routines and practise alternative habits: sleep disruption might be sorted out without going to see a doctor (that’s not a recommendation to avoid the doctor, but rather to prepare for your appointment!).
- A start can be to wake at the same time every morning, relatively early, with the help of an alarm, no matter what time you have fallen asleep the previous night. You should retire at the same time of the night without naps during the later day time or evening (NB I take a siesta after lunch quite often – a civilised continental routine – well suited to the life stage of us oldies). Siestas at tea-time, and after, are not recommended.
- Eating habits may make it difficult to get off to sleep. Eating too little may promote early waking. What is your ‘present normal’ here and what small routine might be altered?
- Smoking, alcohol and drinks containing caffeine, such as tea or coffee, can disturb sleep. They alter our state of mind. I’m not asking you to give it all up but rather to just notice your routines and their impact on you, if it is evident. Also, you can set a time to stop taking those drinks, e.g. mid- to late-afternoon).
- The same applies to any drug – legal or illegal. All drugs have side effects and some may appear to help us manage our sleep. Others positively add to our problems. Any artificial aids need to be TEMPORARY and cautiously managed by problem-solving to remove the need for artificial aids.
- We sleep badly when we are in pain or running a high temperature. That seems beyond our control, but what steps might be taken to reduce the time we are in pain or running a temperature? How do we go about alleviating these experiences?
- Can others be helpful to us – for the sake of asking for things from them?
Even so, when a lack of sleep continues, everyday life can become trying. Anxiety can build up and we may find it very difficult to get off to sleep. It is possible to find myself in crisis, say, through a depressed state promoted by waking early, or in the middle of the night. At this time we may well need to consult our family doctor. In the 21st century there are tablets available to help us with discomfort and unsettled sleep. That’s the first aid.
For my part, I will examine further the problem-solving safe experiments rather than the ‘first-aid’ route. further information from the NHS is available. Does it match what I am saying? It does not always work that way!
Further safe experiments – repetition deliberate!!
- Consider how you might collect some information (safe experiments need results!). When you examine your sleep routine consider the specifics. WHEN, WHERE or WITH WHOM do you prepare for sleep and get ready for it? A diary covering the mid-evening and onward – kept for a given period of time, say, one month – can help to identify these things.
- Take moderate amounts of exercise during the day-time, such as swimming or walking (not in the mid- to late evening).
- Cut down or stop drinking tea or coffee in the evening. Try a milky drink before going to bed, if it helps.
- Don’t drink alcohol. It may help you fall asleep, but will almost certainly make you wake up through the night, if only to go to the loo.
- Don’t eat late at night, although this is tricky when you are hungry. Feeling hungry can keep us awake. Try to have your evening meal early rather than late.
- Explore ways to relax before going to bed. Some people use relaxation systems. There are many to be found on the Web. However, beware under-estimating your own ability to create your own safe place in your own head. Have a go and roam around in it.
- Make sure that your bed and bedroom are comfortable – not too hot, not too cold or too noisy.
- Listening to quiet music might help as long as any switch off does not wake you again!
- Establish a regular pattern of going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day. If necessary, restrict your sleep; go late and wake early.
- If you’ve had a bad night, resist the temptation to sleep the next day – it will make it harder to go to sleep the following night.
- If something is troubling you then write it down before you go to bed. If necessary, keep a note-pad next to your bed. This will provide a reminder or To Do list for tomorrow’s action. It is possible that some issues will appear less problematic in the cold light of day.
- If you can’t sleep, say, after 20/30 minutes, then get up and do something you find relaxing. Reading and watching television might be tempting but it is easy to lose track of time here. Instead, can you find a boring routine task you have neglected for some time; clean out the sock drawer? The key here is that the body needs to know that bed is for sleep only (and the other obvious thing!).
- After a while, say, around 20/30 minutes go back to bed again – whether you feel tired or not. Note the length of a half-cycle in the diagram above is around 45 – 60 minutes so the 30 minutes, above, is not a random or magic figure; it is not quite a half-cycle. The key here is to see if your body can tell you whether you are at the bottom or top of a sleep cycle.
- When you return to bed, and if sleep does not come quickly, use thinking-about-breathing I have mentioned before. Slow your breathing – in only through the nose – and countdown, one by one, from 1000 on the out-breath. You may find you forget the number – that is not important. Just keep counting down as best possible. The important thing here is the rythm you are creating.
- The breathing and countdown may be quite demanding – requiring concentration – so just keep counting down slowly. This is one safe experiment that is intended to fail. If you are good with figures, and you want to make the experiment trickier, then do a countdown in threes; that is, 1000, 1997, 1994 etc.
- Let me end with a cunning strategy. If you return to bed and find you do not sleep yet again. Use slowed breathing to go back into visualisation of a relaxing scene and then use the thought that says: “I am not going to sleep, I am not going to sleep etc”.
- If your adaptations of these approaches seem not to help then talk over things with a very trusted friend or professional. Some people tell me that speaking things out seems to help devise further action required, if it is needed.
None of what I have to say here may help if you are a shift worker and you are required to sleep outside your own natural rhythm. It is possible that your work colleagues will be best equipped to use their own experiences to identify some suitable safe experiments.
A MEDITATIVE EXPERIMENT
You can use the countdown experiment listed above to meditate.
Imagine, if you would, the sleep cycle diagram representing a ‘sea of sleep’. The sea level is represented by the hatched line labelled ALERT. Imagine, further, how an earthquake at sea can result in substantial lifting of the sea bed, here represented by the HOURS OF SLEEP line.
Use any meditative ‘gateway’ to float back to a time when you were feeling stressed. If your ‘sea floor’ was lifted what was happening at your ‘sea level’?
What can happen is that ‘islands of wakefulness’ appear at the top of each cycle. It is for this reason that some readers will experience waking at 1 a.m., 3 a.m and 5 a.m. That would be consistent with reaching the ‘top’ of a two-hourly cycle – assuming we dropped off to sleep around 11 p.m.
This diagram also highlights that it would be helpful to be near the top of a cycle around the time you turn out your light and want to ‘drop off’. Being near the bottom of a cycle is trickier. Potentially, you will become more alert. We are not always aware of our ‘arrival’ at the bottom or top points. Now there are several opportunities to experiment here and become more aware or sensitive to these rhythms. Body Scanning is one safe experiment that may make us more sensitive to the thoughts, feelings and sensations associated with alert and relaxed states.
AN EXPERIMENT to raise awareness of the ‘top’ of a cycle of alertness (and, all other things equal, more ready to relax). When you are going to bed is a good time for this.
Use CONTROLLED BREATHING, that is, breathing evenly only through the nose – to around a slow count of three or four. This may help you become more relaxed. Continue this beyond the 30/40 seconds recommended on previous web pages.
As you breathe, count backwards from 999, on the out-breath, counting in your head slowly. Keep each breath going a little longer than your normal rate of breathing. That said, do not make your breathing laboured. Be as relaxed as you can, noting all the while, that you are doing several things at the same time. After a bit of practice, you may find this becomes easier.
After a suitable interval, you decide, but not longer than a few minutes, note down the results of your experiment. How good were you at relaxing and whereabouts would you see yourself on the ultradian cycle? I will follow through on this later on.
MORE SLEEP EXPERIMENTS
Often we will need more information to design more experiments. The diary I have included should help with your planning:
Sample seven days of your sleep activity and look out for any patterns that emerge. What, if anything, do those patterns suggest about the way you are sleeping, your preparations for sleeping and your management of the time when you are awake?
There are a number of additional complications that can disrupt our sleep routines. It is at that point that some professional help may be useful. However, if you want to research some specific and well-known disorders further, then look out for topics such as Sleep Apnoea, Sleepwalking, Night terrors, persistent Nightmares or Restless Legs.
For further practical and clear comment, visit David Lee’s work at:
where you will find specific reference to his text:
Lee D.R. (2017) Teaching The World to Sleep: Psychological and Behavioural Assessment and Treatment Strategies for People with Sleeping Problems and Insomnia.
I heard him speak recently (March 2021) and he offered information and practical strategies that can be melded into safe experiments. In particular, you may find his advice on types of insomnia, sleep routines, stimulus control and sleep restriction therapy particularly relevant. That last item demonstrates well the less common-sense elements that need to be considered in the design of small, safe experiments.
Further useful reading
Get a Better Night Sleep Ian Oswald and Kirstine Adam, Optima
Why We Sleep James Home, Oxford University Press
Sleep like a Dream the Drug-Free Way Rosemary Nichol, Sheldon Press