Cycles/Stages of Sleep
Most of us have heard of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. This is a stage of sleep when we dream. Many of us don't remember our dreams when we wake but we all dream. If someone wakes you while you're in the REM stage of sleep, you would probably remember what you were just dreaming about. A person who happens to be watching you while you're asleep will know you're in REM sleep by the movement of your eyes beneath your eyelids.
There are other stages of sleep, too, and we need all of them for restorative, healthy sleep. The first stage is a transitional stage that only happens as we move from wakefulness into sleep. But once we're asleep, we move back and forth between different stages in a definite pattern - 2,3,4,2,REM, 2,3,4,2,REM, ... . An EEG machine attached to our skulls can distinguish these stages.
We spend about half of our sleep in Stage 2 although not all at once. This is the most frequently occurring stage as we pass through it twice in each sleep cycle. In this stage, the heart slows and temperature drops. It is in this stage that motor (learning to ride a bike, for instance) and implicit learning is consolidated.
Stages 3 and 4 are slow-wave sleep. This is a deeper sleep and a loud noise will be needed to wake you. Growth hormone will repair body damage and metabolize fat and carbohydrates. In puberty, growth hormone will develop sexual organs. This is when most of the physical benefits of sleep occur, restoring tissue, decreasing stress. It is also when your mind gets cleared out and when declarative learning (like learning a phone number) is consolidated. Stage 4 is when we are most deeply asleep, most different from being awake.
Before going into REM sleep, we go back for a few minutes to Stage 2 sleep. Then it's into REM - the most exciting of the sleep states. The regular breathing of other sleep states becomes irregular, the heart speeds up and blood pressure rises. The temperature of the brain increases and the EEG wave patterns seem like those of awake people. Muscles will twitch and your body will experience paralysis. It is in this stage that we experience vivid dreams. Research is now showing that memory is being consolidated during this phase - learning is transferred from short to long-term memory. Creativity and complex learning also need this REM stage.
Going through these stages takes 90 - 100 minutes and when you are finished the whole cycle, you will begin again. If you're getting enough sleep, you'll cycle through 5 or 6 times.
Sleep and Stress
Many of us don't sleep well or can't get to sleep because of stress. We might be worried and anxious about something and can't let go of our worries. It might be anxiety about something that has already happened or it might be worries about the future. It might be strong regrets or remorse. Whatever it is, it keeps us awake and doesn't allow us a refreshing night's sleep.
With stress in our lives, we enter a vicious circle. Stress won't let us sleep, and sleeplessness increases our stress. We need to learn to relax and let go of our stress. There are many strategies for this and I offer a few ideas here that you might research further or try for yourself. Find one that works for you and use it to get to sleep and stay asleep.
Things to Do
If your stress isn't too bad you might just try breathing deeply and slowly while you count your breaths. This works for me, a teacher, if I'm anxious about being unprepared for the next day or wonder how my problem students will behave on a field trip. I rarely get to 6 in my counting.
Sip Some Chamomile Tea without Sugar
Chamomile tea is available in most grocery stores or online. You don't have to drink this tea only at bedtime. At a particularly stressful time of my life, my doctor suggested I drink chamomile any time I wanted a hot drink.
Use Essential Oils
Some aromatherapists will tell you that essential oils can make quite a difference in our lives. The most overlooked sense that we have is our sense of smell. We know of perfumes and deodorizers but what of other health benefits of scent? So another idea is to diffuse some essential oil in your bedroom. Just putting a drop or two of lavender on a cotton ball in the room might help. Or you can buy a diffuser and diffuse the oil that way. Some stress-reducing scents are:
- Lavender - very versatile: reduce stress, treat burns, use as perfume, and more
- Clary sage - calming, stress-relieving
- Neroli - calming, relaxing
- Geranium - eases stress and tension, fosters feelings of peace and well-being
- Chamomile - calming and relaxing, combats stress
- Cedarwood - calming
- Patchouli - calming and relaxing, reduces anxiety
- Valerian - calming and relaxing
- Marjoram - calming and relaxing
Try to Journal
Write all your worries, your frustrations, your regrets and heartaches down. Get them out of your system. You might be angry - express it in writing. You might have ideas for revenge - write them down. Write crazy ideas and laugh about them. You can keep your journals as records of the phases of your life or you can trash them. The idea here is to get anything that's affecting your sleep out of your system so you can sleep better.
Try to Pray
If you're a spiritual person, you can pray. Cast your cares on God. Tell God about all the worries that are keeping you awake and ask for faith to leave them with God.
Meditation is another method for stress reduction. Find a quiet place where you can empty your mind of all stress by repeating a word or short phrase that has meaning for you. The word might be 'love' or 'peace' or it might be from your religious beliefs. For example, if you are Christian, you might repeat 'Jesus'. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, breathe slowly, relax physically and repeat your word for 10 - 20 minutes.
Listen to Pleasant Sounds
There are wonderful recordings of natural sounds either alone or with music that might help relax you and put you to sleep. Or you might invest in an indoor water fountain that will give you the sound of water right in your bedroom. Or use gentle wind chimes.
Laughter Can also Release Stress
I once read of a family who had 'laugh time' after the evening meal. They would simply sit around the table and laugh. For me, this was a novel idea - I thought I needed something to laugh at but I found that once I started, I could keep laughing for as long as I wanted. My children think I'm crazy when I do it, but it is very therapeutic. To get yourself started, think of a funny joke or incident and then just keep laughing.
Talk to a Friend or Someone You Trust
Tell him or her about what's bothering you. It's amazing how much better you can feel after you share troubles with a friend. A friend can often shed new light on a situation or they may have other suggestions. But if they give no advice at all and simply listen, it can be a benefit - you don't feel so alone, your burden is shared with another person.
Follow a Relaxation Guide
Some people like to be guided through a series of steps to help them relax. These might tell you what to do - for instance, a series of steps like 'focus on your jaws; let them relax.' - or they might guide you on a more imaginary journey like 'imagine yourself on a warm, sunny beach ...'. This can lead you to let go of your present stress and drift off to sleep.
Take a Bath in Epsom Salts
This relaxes some people although others say it puts them to sleep quickly and then they wake too soon.
Hopefully you'll find at least one suggestion in this list that will ease your stress and allow you to sleep better.
There are a number of things that can rob you of sleep. Fortunately most of these things can be solved through practicing good sleep hygiene and making sleep a priority. Unfortunately for some people, practicing good sleep hygiene and maximizing their sleep environment doesn't always help them sleep better. Many of these people suffer from sleep disorders that need to be diagnosed and treated starting with a sleep study.
For residents of Alaska, The Alaska Sleep Clinic is here to help. We have over a decade worth of experience in diagnosing and treating a variety of sleep disorders including sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, and many others. If you're having trouble sleeping and think it may be a sign of a disorder, click the link below for a free consultation with a sleep specialist.
About the author: Alissa Zucker is a writer at the service Mcessay where you can ask to write my essay. She is interested in reading classic and psychological books which give her inspiration to write her own articles and short stories.