Redefining Stress

How to train your brain to conquer anxiety and depression

The "Mental Breakdown" and the "Sleep" cure

Sleep: The primary ingredient in depression remedy
Many readers probably remember someone or heard of someone having a "nervous breakdown" not that many years ago, and the fantasies we built were based on total secrecy ranging from seeing someone screaming in frenzied behavior to someone in a mummified state being hauled away in a straight jacket. Mental health was portrayed more like Robert Lewis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Mr. Hyde being the deranged split person sent off to the sanitarian, some sort of place where people came from strange and dangerous states of mental health.

Since the label "mental breakdown" was always said in some hushed voice and expression of shame, it was not "nice" to ask questions. This attitude still is pervasive today, and explains much of our fear of mental illness. But let's be real and examine the reality of these myths and understand the utility of the treatment that was provided.

In my research into these incidents, I discovered that most of these breakdowns were simply physical exhaustion and fatigue issues with worries and depression or being overwhelmed with too many stresses. The common cure was to go to a place where a person could rest and escape for a month or two. The richer a person was the more luxury afforded, and many celebrities made a routine route to and from their favorite. The significance of my findings was that lack of sleep was and is the most predictive of mental stress, especially severe stress, and the restoration afforded by the facility was a centerpiece of therapy. Art, music therapy and massage were also considered essential, at least for the exotic arenas.

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This should not be a surprise and could be defended as truly healing art. We all need vacations, and even could be based on Biblical grounds. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. population suffers from insomnia, and is not considered second only to cigarette smoking as dangerous for your health. It has been linked to a variety of health problems, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, ad chronic pain. The association with depression and depression is lack of restoration in emotional reserves for even common day stresses. This is a major health problem and no medication is sight for its remedy. In fact, many sleep drugs are highly addictive and may be more harmful than helpful.

What is supposed to happen while you sleep?

In the anatomy of the sleep process there are stages most people talk about in terms of restoring the mind and body. Stage I is settling down to brain rest in which the EEG frequencies lower themselves from the active states to relaxation. Stage II is the process in which the brain really enters a consciousness apart from what we call reality. You are in a suspension of reacting to external cues and your physiology is slowing down in terms of heart rate, breath and other organs, including muscles.

Stages 3 and 4 are the times in which your physical components get repaired. Your immunity forces, such as your white blood cells, get highly active. This is the time the physical damage that has been inflicted on your body can be remedied, including tired muscles and strained organs. Without entering this stage, there is little repair possible and where disease gets its beach head hold. Chronic pain can be a direct result of problems in entering this level of sleep.

The REW (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep stage is when your mental stresses are addressed. Often through the symbolic dynamics of dreams your problems are integrated into your unconscious so that you don't have to "think through" and process each issue or threat you may experience, either known or unconsciously perceived. This is the efficiency of the mind filing new information within your existing perception of the world. For example, you might not be aware of the boss who is making sexually hints toward you, and you may not even be away of why you are avoiding the situation, but in your dreams it may be clear of the identification through sexual processing. In this regard, dreams can be deep source of information about how you organize your world and history, something similar to psychoanalysis.

If you can't reach the REM stage, you can develop severe stress issues because your brain simply cannot adapt to new informational input. You get overwhelmed. You can't restore peace, and delusional breakdown are not uncommon when you can't have this sleep stage for more than 72 hours. This can be very critical on a chronic basis.

Medication is not the answer. In fact, sleep drugs can reduce your abilities to get lower than stage two. Alcohol will inhibit sleep processing to stage three or beyond, making disease and mental problems are increased, but the toxicity will do even more harm because of the lack of restoration physically.

Sleep Therapy

It seems to me that maybe the sanitarium model might have some merit. The teacher of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine was a man (some called him a God) named Asclepius who established "Incubation Sleep" temples throughout Greece. There are records of how many cures were performed through this method when ordinary methods failed.

Perhaps it would be problematic to decide if someone like a John Henry was curing himself or just taking a vacation for insurance issues. But in a real sense the development of behavioral sleep centers might be a real answer to many of today's health problems, especially mental health. After all, no one teaches us how to sleep and reach those stages successfully. The fact that sleep medications account for billions of dollars would imply some need.

But I see hope. There are budding centers that can teach you these methods. However, many of them are extremely limited in their methods due to the fact that very little helpful training or certification is available. Completely absent from mental school or psychological curriculums are any methods available, and many of them are very limited or applicable. I am not trying to sell my wares, but some good ones are available on the web contained on CDs. I count mine as one of the good ones, obviously (Mindbodyseries.com).

Sleep has been a cure since the beginning of recorded history, and justifiably so. It is the most natural way for the human body and mind to find peace and restoration. But it is a skill, and we have been poorly trained. As our society becomes more stressed and our world has more conflict, we will be reaching out for those methods that work. Hopefully we won't numb our brains out on drugs as destructive ways in achieving what we think as peaceful sleep. It could be said that whole cultures have been destroyed through the intent of finding this magic state. When all we know is that it could be in your own bed.

I doubt seriously that Medicare will pay for sleep, and maybe we don't need another natural process be pathologized just to get coverage. Nevertheless, sleep is a vital part of physical and mental health. Maybe this is a wakeup call to look at your own lifestyle. We all hear that exercise and good diets are important, but of all the factors, sleep is the most important one. At least it is not boring.

G. Frank Lawlis, PhD, is principal content and oversight adviser of the Dr. Phil Show.

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