During my studies at the Stress Management Institute, I learned a lot about the science of stress and the reasons we feel stressed out. Most often, however, the strategies and advice we are given about how to respond to stress are superficial and illogical. For example, we are told to breathe deeply to calm down without actually knowing why we need to do so. The information and understanding of our body’s physiology will actually better equip us to deal with stress. While studying the science related to stress, I found an interesting fact. It has been scientifically proven that a change in our thinking can affect changes in our body and particularly in response to stress. Hormonal changes can be brought about by tricking the brain. Since most often it is stress that prevents us from sleeping, here are simple tools and strategies to trick your brain into producing certain hormones to help you go to sleep.
What Triggers A Stress Response?
A good analogy for a part of our brain called the amygdala is a smoke alarm. When you burn toast, the smoke alarm cannot perceive that it is not an emergency, so signals to you that there is one. The amygdala, which is a primal part of our brain that deals with stress, behaves in the same way. It sees the world in black and white, so when we experience stress, the amygdala perceives it as a threat and releases stress hormones such as cortisol to help us deal with the situation
What Is The Science Behind A Stress Response?
In prehistoric times our amygdalas functioned to protect our survival. If there was the threat of a predatory animal jumping out to eat us, our amygdalas would release cortisol into our systems to get our bodies fired up to face the threat. The autonomic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system which are both rapid, unconscious and involuntary regulate body functions and hormone release in response to dangerous or stressful situations. They boost the body’s alertness, increases the heart rate and prepares the muscles for a fight-or-flight response. Basically, our brains are hardwired to activate the body quickly and respond with ninja moves. In an emergency, the brain will shut down processes that our body doesn’t need in that situation. For example, eating, digesting, reproduction and definitely sleep. The body is put on high alert as cortisol pumps through our systems. Unfortunately, the body responds in just the same way in the modern world where our stressors are not life-threatening and can be as simple as losing a wallet or misplacing a mobile phone. Mundane things like the inability to connect to the internet will pump cortisol into our systems. Because of our busy lifestyles, we have an overproduction of cortisol. When we do stressful things before bedtime, there is too much cortisol in our systems which stops us from sleeping
What Do High Levels Of Cortisol Feel Like?
You know that you probably have high levels of cortisol if your sleep is affected. You are unable to go to sleep and when you do sleep, your body does not feel refreshed, you wake up tired. Sometimes you may even dream that you are working and are unable to rest.
What Do We Need To Do About Cortisol?
We need to trick our brains, to tell the little smoke alarm in our brains that we are safe. We need to tell the amygdala to calm down, we are safe and that its just burnt toast, nothing serious. Especially at bedtime, your brain starts reviewing the day or planning for the next. As you start to make lists of things to prepare for, you release a stress response. One of my favourite tools is to speak to my subconscious. I thank it for bringing the important task to my attention, that knowing it is useful but now is not the time and I promise to deal with it in the morning. This is a little mantra that I recommend that you say to your subconscious over and over again. “Thank You, but not now”. The prefrontal cortex which is the rational, mature part of your brain tells the amygdala to calm down. It acknowledges that the issue is important but that it can be dealt with later.
Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher and best selling author, advises that when thoughts come into your brain, you need to think of them as clouds and watch them pass by. So you are acknowledging the thought, you are thankful that it has been brought to your attention, but you let it move on. You are describing the situation to your subconscious in a soft and safe way and reassuring it that the thoughts are unimportant.
The Importance Of Melatonin
The autonomic nervous system comprises of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system activates the fight or flight response during a threat or perceived danger, its the one that speeds you up and takes away your sleep. The parasympathetic nervous system restores the body to a state of calm. Its the one that slows you down and lets you fall asleep. We have got to encourage the parasympathetic nervous system to kick into play in order to get a good nights sleep. Melatonin, the sleep hormone encourages this to happen. It is released when there is darkness and is suppressed when there is light especially blue light. That is why we are not sleepy during the day because our melatonin is suppressed and our bodies are primed to be active, alert and ready to respond. The levels of melatonin rise in the late evening and night. However, it can be disrupted by the blue light of phone screens, computers and alarm clocks and take up to two hours to kick in.
What Can We Do About Blue Light?
I would like to suggest that you turn off your gadgets and screens two hours before bedtime. Research has shown that it takes two hours after blue light for melatonin to kick in.
I personally set an alarm every evening to remind myself that it’s time to start slowing down. I start slowing down the cortisol by reducing stimuli and increasing the melatonin by reducing the amount of blue light.
If you really need to use your phone, change it to an orange light setting and not to blue light. There can be a lot of blue light that is in your room from alarm clocks, air conditioners and computer screens. My mentor doesn’t have any electronic gadgets in his room.
The Power Of Breathing
Deep, slow breathing and relaxation activate the parasympathetic nervous system which tells your brain that you are safe and don’t need a stress response. Put your hands on your belly and pretend that it is a balloon. As you take a breath in watch your abdominal muscles push against your hand as if a balloon is being inflated. Then release your breath to deflate the balloon. In this way, you will be forcing your breath to be lower and slower. This allows the diaphragm to stimulate the vagus nerve as well. The vagus nerve sends signals to the brain to kick in the parasympathetic response and release dopamine. This results in a feeling of calmness.
Why Is The Vagus Nerve Important?
The vegas nerve sends signals to all your vital organs. It is connected to the gut and to the brain. Since it sends signals throughout the body it is also responsible for keeping everything in alignment as is done in the chakra energy path. The correlation between the gut and the brain has now been scientifically proven and is discussed as the gut-brain. We instinctively know it and that’s why we talk about gut instincts.
Don’t let the stress of daily living interfere with your health and happiness. Hacking your brain to produce refreshing sleep is easier than you think. Try it today.
- Tell your brain to calm down, say “Thank you but not now”
- Let your thoughts pass by like clouds
- Turn off your screens and electronic gadgets two hours before sleep
- Belly breathing to relax
- Let your cortisol levels go up through perceived stress
- Sleep with any blue light in your room
- Think of future plans just as you go to bed
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