Stressed out? Meditation helps, and so does sleep

Image description: Yellow background with a sun reflecting on the water on the left side, a lotus flower on the water's surface with a rippled reflection on the right side.

Image description: Yellow background with a sun reflecting on the water on the left side, a lotus flower on the water’s surface with a rippled reflection on the right side.

I went on a retreat this weekend with some friends. It was at a lakeside retreat centre a couple of hours away and the weather was beautiful. I set myself one main goal this weekend, and that was to get enough sleep.

The retreat involved organized sessions that included guided meditations. I like guided meditation especially when it’s “live” and I’m doing it with other people. But this weekend, I uncharacteristically fell asleep through each of the guided meditations. I could feel myself nodding off and there was nothing I could do about it. Obviously, I needed sleep.

This morning I was chatting with my mother, who recently completed a course on mindfulness meditation. I told her that despite the retreat, I was feeling stressed out at work. I really can’t stand complaining about workload because I have a great job and I realize that, but I do feel overwhelmed. But I mentioned this to my mother and she said, “are you practicing mindfulness?” (I love that she took that course and now is offering mindfulness as a solution to stress!).

She’s right that meditation always helps. Even if I just take a few moments of silence, it can bring me into the present moment where things seem a lot more manageable than when I am worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

On the retreat we learned a technique that I have encountered before called “anchoring.” If you’re feeling mental discomfort or distress, think instead of a time when you felt peaceful and content or even joyful. Really focus on that feeling and anchor it somehow (e.g. touching your ring, snapping your fingers, even inhaling an essential oil). If you really connect with that feeling and anchor it in this way, you can use your anchor to bring you back to that sense of peace and contentment when you’re feeling a more negative feeling.

Anchoring is not exactly the same as mindfulness, but it is another process that we can use in meditation. For more information about how to use anchoring to alleviate stress, check out this article, “From Chaos to Calm in an Instant: How to Create a Positive Anchor.”

The anchoring meditation was the only guided meditation that I didn’t fall asleep during. To make up for the others, I took a couple of sessions by myself to sit in silence in a beautiful meditation room they have on site, overlooking the lake. It’s called The Oasis, and for some reason no one ever seems to go there. I love it.

So I meditated, I slept, and I anchored. And yet still I came home with an uneasy feeling. I think one reason this happens after a retreat is that, for me, I have a tough time reconciling that sense of peace with the chaotic pace of my day to day life. I got back to town and went straight out to a birthday party, followed by a different celebratory dinner, followed by an event in someone’s honor. Even though these are all good things, the pace of it all reversed the sense of calm because I had to rush around. I fell into bed exhausted, and felt the urgency of the week’s tasks press upon me as soon as I opened my eyes.

The good thing about meditation, sleep, and anchoring is that you don’t need to be at a retreat centre to do them.

What are your go-tos when you’re feeling stressed out and overwhelmed?

 

 

 

 

Quick! Get me some placebo sleep!

I’m travelling a lot in other time zones these days,  Austria one week, Calgary the next, now Sweden and Scotland. It’s lovely really (though I do miss my bike) but crossing time zones makes sleep complicated. Not to mention Sweden’s lack of dark which made for sunset at 11 pm and sunrise at 4 am.  (But Sweden was good for exercise and aspirational bike rides.)

You might think–as my Samsung health app does–that I ought to track my sleep. It turns out you’re both wrong.

That’s because not getting a good night’s sleep is bad. Knowing about it is even worse.

And the converse is also true. Thinking you’ve got a good night’s sleep even when you didn’t turns out to improve performance on cognitive tests. See Placebo sleep improves cognitive skills.

If you can’t get real sleep, perhaps you can make up for it with placebo sleep. Or such is the suggestion of a new study that found that people did better on cognitive tests after being told that they got a high proportion of REM sleep, even if they didn’t.

It turns out that those who were told they got better sleep did better on a test of information processing speed called the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test (PASAT), which involves adding many numbers together, as well as on a verbal fluency test called the Controlled Oral Word Association Task (COWAT). Those who were told they got lousy sleep did worse. The same relationship didn’t hold for self-reported sleep quality–those who thought they got better sleep didn’t generally do better on the PASAT than those who thought they hadn’t had a good night’s slumber.

Placebo effects are pretty powerful. Should you decide to take a drug for sleep issues most of the drug’s effects turn out to be placebo. And the strangest thing about placebo effects is that they work even if you know that it’s a placebo.

What’s interesting here is that when it comes to health and fitness more information isn’t always a good thing. Maybe what we need are sleep apps that lie to us, tell us we got a great night’s sleep even when we didn’t. If you decide to write the app and market it, please let me know.

And, while we’re on the subject of sleep, I’m still pining for a Jeeves alarm clock.

 

This is the alarm clock that faithfully reproduces the subtle wit employed by P. G. Wodehouse’s most famous character–the valet Reginald Jeeves–as he politely affirms the beginning of the day. The clock plays 126 different wake-up messages in the reserved voice of Stephen Fry, the original actor from the English comedy Jeeves and Wooster. When the alarm sounds, Jeeves speaks softly as he assuages your displeasure that the morning has indeed come: “Excuse me sir, I’m so sorry to disturb you, but it appears to be morning… Very inconvenient, I agree… I believe it is the rotation of the Earth that is to blame, sir,” or asks “Shall I inform the news agencies that you are about to rise, sir?” If you are not roused sufficiently, a series of beeps will ensue; a press of the clock’s rosette cancels the beeps, prompting Jeeves to interject “Sir has a firm touch, but fair” as one of ten possible snooze replies. A press of the rosette at bed time initiates a three-minute relaxation message with ambient music. Made of wood and handpainted in a subdued lacquer. A button on the back illuminates the clock’s face. 

That ever elusive good night’s sleep!

Image: cartoon of a sheep jumping over fence with the word "sleep" overhead. Credit: http://tlp.advancedbrain.com/a/sleep/

Image: cartoon of a sheep jumping over fence with the word “sleep” overhead.
Credit: http://tlp.advancedbrain.com/a/sleep/

Sam has written here about sleep a few times, including “Sleep is a Feminist Issue,” “The Puzzle over Too Much Sleep,” “Zzzzzz, Sleep and Fitness,” and “Sleep! Zzzzz.

I talk to so many women who struggle with getting a good night’s sleep. From getting to bed too late and having to get up early, to not being able to fall asleep, to tossing and turning in the middle of the night, to waking up in a puddle of sweat, to a stream of thoughts that just won’t shut down, all sorts of things keep us up at night.

I’ve never had kids, but I remember my mother saying at some point that every kid needs a structured bedtime ritual.  As a child, I had that.  Bath time preceded bedtime, then we brushed our teeth, got into our jammies, and curled up in bed for a bedtime story that one of my parents or, more often, my grandfather, read aloud to us.  I never had difficulty falling asleep. Never woke up in the middle of the night. Never lay awake for hours tossing and turning.

The one the Precision Nutrition habit that has so far surprised me the most is: create and use a sleep ritual.  This surprised me because I never thought of it as part of a nutritional plan to get a good night’s sleep. And I also haven’t given a lot of thought in recent years to the idea of bedtime as involving more than just brushing my teeth and turning out the light.

But it’s a good thing for me to reflect upon lately because my days of being a “good sleeper” (I was sucha good sleeper) are over.  Much of this has to do with hormones I guess. It’s hard to sleep through night sweats.

What I’ve learned and what this New York Times article confirms, is that a good night’s sleep starts way before the light goes out. Like almost anything else that you want to go well, it requires a plan.  In PN terms, that would be the sleep ritual. As part of the sleep ritual, PN recommends a few things:  Start at least half an hour if not a full hour before lights out; at the appointed time, turn off all electronics; do a “brain dump” where you spill everything that might keep you awake out onto a piece of paper; do something relaxing (like have a bath, do a meditation, read some fiction). Of course, the ritual can include the usual things like brushing your teeth and flossing, changing into your sleep wear (or getting naked). They also recommend dimming the lights well before it’s time to shut them off for the night.

These things are all with a view to slowing us down and calming the brain. From the New York Times piece:

Beauty is sleep; sleep, beauty. But in our harried multitasking worlds, sleep, like truth, can sometimes be compromised.

Dr. Wechsler, the author of “The Mind-Beauty Connection,” said that there’s no quick fix to getting enough sleep, only a slow, mindful one.

“There has to be a plan, you have to slow down,” she said. For those who are on the fast track and desperate to look rested, Botox between the eyebrows can help fake it in the short term, she said, but it does not address the root of the problem.

If the root of the problem is a mind that won’t stop, what can we do to slow things down? The article makes a bunch of suggestions:

Enter the lavender pillows, nap pods and masseuses. The sleep-wellness industry is on an upswing as shut-eye becomes an increasingly sought-after beauty experience.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, has a section on its website dedicated to treating sleep disorders with herbals and meditative practices like tai chi. Canyon Ranch is on track to double the number of all-night sleep studies it has conducted in 2013 and 2014. The number of guests choosing rest and relaxation programs at Omega, a holistic center in upstate New York, has increased by over a third since 2006. Other resort offerings include power napping classes, pillow menus and yogic sleep programs.

Another possibility:

cognitive behavioral therapy techniques like “worry journals.” On one page a problem is written out, and on an opposite page a solution, right before bed. Even if the solution is “I’ll figure it out tomorrow,” said Dr. Breus, the act of writing out what’s keeping their brains awake helps his patients “close their minds to their lists of anxieties.” For those who wake up in the middle of the night, he offers an MP3 of a progressive muscle relaxation meditation, similar to what Ms. Harris practices.

Rubin Naiman, a sleep and dream specialist who conducts workshops at ashrams and spas nationwide, emphasized that people should avoid trying too hard to fall asleep and that they need to learn how to “fall in love with sleep again,” adding that it must be invoked “through ritual and pleasure.”

There are even fragrances that are thought to induce calm:

ath and Body Works has an aromatherapy collection called Sleep, which includes a pillow mist, sugar scrub and massage oil. And Hope Gillerman’s essential oil line, which works with acupressure points to ease mind-body stresses, includes a product called Natural Rest Sleep Remedy.

Herbals with calming qualities include valerian and magnolia bark, according to Dr. Breus. As for the soothing elements of lavender, he is supportive of it for setting the mood and causing a relaxation response but not for putting you to sleep.

I find it challenging to implement a solid sleep ritual for all sorts of reasons. Though I’ve stopped watching Orange is the New Black on my iPad in bed as the last thing I do before I turn out the light, I find reading isn’t always a better option for me. I have been known to get so drawn into a book that I can’t put it down.  Sharing the bed with a partner who brings his laptop with him because his bedtime ritual includes watching YouTube videos of sailboats poses another challenge.  I might want a sleep ritual that involves no electronics, but it’s not my right to impose that on someone else.

I also have difficulty starting to wind down much before I’m in urgent need of getting to bed.  But I’m about to be traveling for a week, and I am going to try the 30-60 minute unwind thing while I’m gone: electronics off (this is a tough one for me), dim lights, brush and floss, wash face, change, read, and sleep.

And I’m open to other suggestions, especially about how to implement a sleep ritual that is different from that of  your bedmate.

The puzzle over too much sleep

sheep-sleep1

Sheep!

While most, or at least many, of my friends are making resolutions to get enough sleep in 2014, I’m doing okay on that front. I regularly sleep 7-8 hours a night. See Zzzz, Sleep and Fitness and Sleep is a feminist issue for past musings on sleep.

Sometimes I joke that my ability to fall asleep is my super power. I can fall asleep just about anywhere, anytime, and for any amount of time.

I once shared a hotel room with another feminist philosopher and after brushing my teeth, putting on pyjamas, and turning off the light I said “night, night.”

She said, “that’s it?”

Turned out she needed to do lots more in order fall asleep. Relaxation exercises, television, stretching, and lots more. Luckily none of it kept me awake. Truth be told, other than crying babies, not very much can.

It’s a bit of a family trait. In times of stress or difficulty, I sleep more, not less. But I can’t top my brother who had the funny habit of falling sleep in the dentist’s chair.

Last week friends were busy sharing this story, How Sleep Deprivation Decays the Mind and Body, but I wondered about the other end of the spectrum.

The Atlantic piece on sleep deprivation quotes a researcher on sleep.

“Definitely, we know that sleep deprivation leads to depression, high blood pressure, weight gain, heart disease, and probably mortality,” he said. People that regularly sleep those seven and a quarter hours have been shown to live longer than those who routinely sleep less or more. He added that lack of sleep disrupts other systems in the body.”

I get the “too little” sleep bit but the “too much” part of the story fascinates me. Presumably people who sleep more aren’t making themselves sleep more. They’re doing it because it feels good. And alarm clocks are bad, right? It’s a puzzle.

Sometimes I worry that I sleep too much, a problem I don’t even dare mention among my overworked and insomniac colleagues, especially those with small children. I’ve read a few times that sleeping too much can be just as bad as sleeping too little. But I’m an intuitive sleeper and if my body wants to sleep more, that can’t be bad, can it? Surely, that’s just a sign I need more sleep.

On Huffington Post Dr. Michael Breus takes on my question, asking Can You Really Sleep Too Much? Really?

“A number of studies also show that sleeping too much increases the risk of diabetes and metabolic disorders, including metabolic syndrome. Some research suggests that long sleep poses similar levels of increased risk as short sleep, while other studies indicate the diabetes risk to long sleepers is even greater. Cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease, are also linked to both insufficient sleep and prolonged sleep. An investigation that included data from the Nurses’ Health Study on more than 71,000 women showed that long sleep duration was associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease. Research shows that abnormal sleep duration — long or short — may nearly double the risk of some cardiovascular disease.”

Of course this is just correlation, not causation, and it might be that unhealthy people need more sleep, rather than that excess sleep causes ill health. Still, it worries me.

The most alarming of the “too much sleep will kill you” stories I’ve seen is from BBC Health in 2002, Too much sleep ‘is bad for you’

Eight hours’ sleep a night has long been touted as the ideal length of time to spend under the duvet but new research suggests it could shorten your life.A study that included more than a million participants found people who sleep eight hours or more died younger.

Those who only managed four or less hours in the land of nod were similarly affected but six or seven hours a night was found to be conducive to a longer life. The research, carried out by scientists at the University of California, showed a clear association between long duration sleep and high mortality rates. The report’s author Dr Daniel Kripke, a professor of psychiatry, said: “We don’t know if long sleep periods lead to death. “Additional studies are needed to determine if setting your alarm clock earlier will actually improve your health. “Individuals who now average six-and-a-half hours of sleep a night can be reassured this is a safe amount of sleep.

I’m puzzled.

Off to bed now for my 7 hours!

See also