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Going Deeper into Sleep

Taking action to improve natural sleep in our lives

I was jazzed as I stood before a large crowd to talk about the recent research on sleep and my small contribution to the sleep problem — stories designed to lull one back to sleep in the middle of the night. Instead of enthusiastic engagement about the research, I was met with silence. Afterward, people came up privately to say how shaken they were at learning about the harmful health consequences both of sleep deprivation and many of the sleep medications. Several said that they were taking them nightly.

That was three years ago. Audiences today have heard about sleep research thanks to the advocacy of researchers such as Matthew Walker and public figures such as Arianna Huffington. The audience now actively participates. They ask questions about how to talk to their doctors about the new research on anticholinergic drugs, about how to work with a family member hooked on medications, or how to deal with co-workers who work late into the night, pushing the myth that productive employees don’t sleep.

Those questions make my heart sing. That’s because I am an educational psychologist, someone who looks at the ways we learn and how learning connects to our behavior. In my experience, there is nothing more powerful than diving below the surface to grapple with new information, admit we might have a problem and ask deeper questions. How do we change our own harmful behavior and inspire others to do so? How do we interact with others given new information? How can we do so without seeming intrusive?

As we explore answers to these questions, we find that we are up against some powerful forces. Our lives are governed by habits and we remain loyal to them. As one woman said to me, “I love my sleeping pills, been on them for years. End of story.” I wanted to reply, as sleep neuroscientist Matthew Walker might, “Yes, and that will be a shorter story.”

Many believe that receiving accurate information will somehow automatically transform us. Yet people frequently don’t learn best or change their behavior through “getting a message,” although they might ingest it like a seed that will grow later.

Another belief about behavior change results from our product-driven, quick fix society. If information doesn’t magically transform us, perhaps a product or a pill is what we need. Thus, we acquiesce to the marketplace and not our own reflections about our behaviors given new information.

So how are we, especially those deprived or medicated, participating in conversations that lead to reflection and to new healthier sleep behaviors? Along with accurate information and thinking carefully about our own situations, I have found an important ingredient: playfulness.

For one, at workshops, I share my story of being stumped once I learned of the dangers of sleep medications. I am now more like a dog going to bed, scratching and turning around several times before getting back to sleep. How will you be if you are trying to get more sleep without using pills? There’s a smorgasbord of options.

Showing some of the new technological devices now available and their prices surprise and amuse people. When they get in groups to discuss which device they would be tempted by and why, the room is abuzz with talk … and laughter. Would a heavier blanket work for you or an app that monitors your sleep? How about a pillow that plays music only you can hear through bone conduction?

Like the multiple sleep technologies, there are scads of meditation Apps and ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos. “These have been helpful,” I explain. Invariably, someone asks, “Can you say more about ASMR?” It involves listening to gentle sounds designed to produce a relaxation response, including a tingling sensation. I demonstrate it for them with whispering, and we laugh thinking of potential tingles to come. And think of all the meditation programs available — even Oprah and Deepak have a new one out. I have a list of such resources and ask them to turn to a neighbor to talk about what they might want to try and why. Their discussions become animated. Of course these programs can be used mindlessly — “turn on the App and fall asleep” or reflectively — how do I build meditative practices into my life?

Most of my focus is on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT involves a process of reflection about your sleep behavior so that you can make informed adaptations that lead to longer and more natural sleep. (Trained therapists and medical doctors are available to help.) Here, the reflective process is key. Problem sleepers examine their thinking about sleep and the social context in which it occurs as well as their practices. In the process, they learn the basics of sleep hygiene.

That reflection and knowledge are then accompanied by revisions of their sleep practices, revisions that call on their creativity. Take, for example, the narrative strategy which I advocate. I wrote a book of a book of stories that can serve as models. I ask audiences to think about a time they were pulled down helplessly into a deep sleep: after a long hike, after an evening of good conversation with friends, after great sex, listening to a thunderstorm off in the distance. Build a story around those times and then internalize it for use in the middle of the night. Readily available stories in one’s head have an advantage: you don’t have to turn on a light or have your cell phone nearby.

The new research is easier to absorb when we can help each other imagine and create our own warm, tailor-made blankets under which to asleep.

PhD, Educational psychologist. Author and sleep advocate interested in learning as social/cultural process (Website: dianemgillespie.com)

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