There is so much attention paid to diet and exercise, yet consider that you can go a long time with poor diet or exercise without noticing the effect. Yet if you go one night with poor sleep the negative effect can be critical. That is evidence that sleep is perhaps more fundamental to your well-being than either diet or exercise.
Most articles on sleep just offer suggestions like slowing down before bed, having your room be dark and quiet, etc. “The Joys Of Sleep” series of articles will be different. This is about when your head is on the pillow, simple steps that will help you actually fall asleep or fall back to sleep. These will be different than steps you may have previously come across, yet will be very easy to use.
In my clinical practice, my primary focus for 18 years has been helping insomniacs to sleep well again.
How I came to know about sleep: I have been a psychotherapist since 1978. In 1991, a major crisis occurred in my life and I developed severe insomnia, sleeping only three hours a night. Over many years, I resolved my insomnia by inwardly observing my own process of eventually falling asleep. I discovered that as the body and mind are falling asleep, there are subtle, but very easy to experience body sensations that act as the nervous system’s signals of sleep.
From this, I created a sleep method comprised of simple, logical steps of these body sensations that effortlessly quiet your mind, calm your body, and gently pull you into sleep. These sensations create a feeling of safety deep inside you (even if your life doesn’t feel safe) and the feeling of deep inner safety opens the way into sleep. These body sensations are the “secrets” of sleep.
A first step: Let your tongue relax. The tongue is a fascinating muscle. When many people are stressed, they press their tongue against the roof of their mouth and may not even aware of it. Try this exercise: Make a tight fist and hold it. Now let your first loosen. That is not trying to relax your fist. It is actually less effort to let go of tension. Another quick exercise: Briefly press your tongue against the roof of your mouth to make it tense, then stop doing that and let your tongue be anywhere in your mouth.
On your way to sleep, gently be aware of your tongue. If it is tense, don’t make it relax. Realize that your tongue is tired of being tense, so give it permission to relax, like you let your fist relax. Your tongue doesn’t need to be very relaxed, just slightly, and it can be anywhere in your mouth. It might feel as if your tongue is getting a bit softer, as if the back of your tongue, back near your throat, has begun to relax. If you need to swallow, that’s okay. If your tongue gets tense again, don’t get annoyed. Just give it permission to relax again.
People often hold tension in the tongue without being aware of it, as it is part of the involuntary (autonomic) nervous system. Yet it is also fairly easy to allow your tongue to relax, thus your tongue is also part of your voluntary nervous system. This makes your tongue a “bridge” between your voluntary and involuntary nervous systems, which gives you a way to get your involuntary nervous system–the “deeper” part of your nervous system–to begin to relax.
Consider that your tongue is deep in the center of your head and neck area, and relaxing this center area spreads relaxation to your face, head, neck, throat, shoulders, and even your chest. This is like relaxing “from the inside out.” This helps quiet your mind and opens the way to sleep.
A feeling of comfort and safety makes sleep easier. However, many people have so much stress they wonder how they could ever feel comfortable and safe. Consider that you have had many times when you were indoors, protected from the weather outside. If it is stormy and you’re outside, you have to brace yourself. Once you are inside, you can relax some. Letting your tongue relax, plus a few other simple body sensations you will learn in coming articles, will create a particular feeling of comfort and safety inside your body. Your awareness can then begin to rest in this inner feeling of comfort and safety. This becomes like a “secret place” to go to inside yourself to ease into sleep. Your mind likes that feeling, begins to rest in that feeling, and begins to become quiet without effort to make it quiet.
Letting your tongue relax is just one step. In the next article, you will learn other simple steps, including what to do if your sleep is disrupted by hormonal changes.
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May you sleep easily and well,
Richard Shane, Ph.D.