What happens every time we get a bit of shut eye?

We spend a third of our lives doing it. Napoleon, Florence Nightingale and Margaret Thatcher got by on four hours a night. Thomas Edison claimed it was waste of time.

So why do we sleep and what happens every time we get a bit of shut eye?

When you go to sleep at night you enter a deep sleep cycle known as non rapid eye movement or NREM. This is followed by a dream cycle known as rapid eye movement or REM. Our eyes dart around (hence the name), our breathing rate and blood pressure rise. However, our bodies are effectively paralysed, said to be nature’s way of preventing us from acting out our dreams. The time between going to sleep to the end of the dream cycle varies between 1.5 to 2 hours depending on the individual.

These cycles continue throughout the night so that most people will get between three – four cycles. The first cycle is mainly deep sleep with a little bit of dream and the last cycle is mainly dream. It is assumed that the deep sleep is about body rest and repair and the dream cycle is about emotional rest and repair.

When people become emotionally disturbed the dream cycle eats into the deep sleep cycle. In the extreme people get no rest because they are continually dreaming. The result is that you feel more tired when you wake than when you went to sleep. This often leads to an increasing sleep pattern so that people may end up sleeping for sixteen hours or more, resulting in feeling more tired. This is the most common symptom in depressive illnesses.

When the dreams are taking over, they become so vivid that we are discharged from sleep in the dream cycle and yet we may not remember what we were dreaming about, or, if we do it is lost very quickly unless we write it down. The difference between deep sleep and dream sleep is that if we wake in deep sleep we are groggy and may not know who we are or where we are until we orient ourselves. However in this state it is easy to go back to sleep. When we wake in dream sleep we are wide awake as though someone has switched the light on and we find it difficult to go back to sleep.

One treatment used to overcome depressive tiredness is to reduce the amount of time someone sleeps. This sounds like the reverse of what we need, yet when the amount of dream sleep is reduced the internal rumination on the depressive triggers diminishes with a reduction in depressive symptoms.

Improving, your sleep pattern is fundamental to your emotional wellbeing.

So, ways to improve your sleep pattern are…

  • Do not eat of drink for two hours before you go to bed.
  • Only go to bed to sleep not to read or watch or listen to anything. (This creates an emotional association with the bed that it is for sleep).
  • Avoid any drinks that include high levels of caffeine or tannin.
  • Get at least half an hour exercise everyday, that means making your heart beat at an exercise rate appropriate to you age and health.
  • Develop deep relaxation or self hypnosis techniques.
  • Mediate every day for at least twenty minutes.
  • If possible take a siesta or a power nap.

In research people who have a siesta sleep of about an hour have higher levels of serotonin, (this is a well being endorphin), after their siesta than before. This is also true of the shorter power nap. We now question the emphasis on the Mediterranean diet as to the reason why people there live longer, it may be the effect of siesta as well as their diet.

One last thing, using sleeping pills or drugs serve only to treat the symptom and not the cause. If your sleep disturbance is due to emotional disturbance the most effective cure is psychotherapy.

Take care, sweet dreams!

Sean x

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My name is Sean Orford. I am a therapist based in the UK, working for a variety of public and private organisations. I am also a speaker, writer and published author. I hope you enjoy my weekly blog. If you'd like to know more then please do get in touch.

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