- Two unconscious brain processes help us anticipate when sleep is most likely to occur.
- Sleep pressure must be high and our circadian rhythm must be at a tipping point.
- Falling asleep better may be viewed as an art, science, and practice; knowing more about these natural rhythms can help.
As a health psychologist, I have taught sleep classes throughout my career because no matter what population I have worked with, sleep is a critical issue. Falling asleep is difficult for so many, people. How people improve sleep, I have found, is an art, science, and often a spiritual practice.1
Like most natural systems, we cannot account for all of the factors involved in sleep, and even if we control the environmental factors in our power (dark, cool, quiet), we often cannot control larger personal health or work factors, or family, community, or political stressors that may impact sleep within our larger context. And we don’t necessarily need to; being aware of natural brain rhythms can guide us on how to fall asleep better.
A Systems View of Sleep
We typically think of sleep as a linear process and expect it to occur when and if we shut off our phones and crawl into bed; however, the complexity of sleep may be better captured with a complex dynamical systems view.2 This mathematical concept means, in short, that there are two possible stable outcomes for the brain at any given moment: awake or asleep. Neither is wrong and they cannot occur simultaneously. The brain is shifting toward one or toward the other at any given moment. Then, like paper clips to a magnet, a critical point must be reached for the system to transition from one state to another. Viewing sleep as a complex system rather than a linear occurrence can help us intuit what to do, and when, for better sleep.
Here are two key patterns that must converge for us to fall asleep:
- Sleep Pressure. Also known as urge or sleep propensity, it increases the further we are from last night's sleep or today’s nap. The brain tracks this 24/7 and sleep urge needs to be high in order for the brain to sleep again. The longer we are awake, the sleepier we get. This seems obvious, but is necessary to converge with #2.
- Tipping Point. We are able to fall asleep only in certain stages of a circadian wave. Internal clocks in our brains—and every cell in our bodies—track how long we have been doing a particular task when we are awake, not just when we are asleep. The length of a circadian rhythm runs in about 90-minute cycles. Think of it like catching a wave on a surfboard: You have to catch the wave when it’s up or lie around waiting until the next peak comes by. The same is true with sleep. You may notice that there is a “window” of sleepiness and if you miss it, it takes at least another hour for you to fall asleep.
Mixed Messages and Golden Rules
There are things we can do to increase sleep pressure and catch the circadian wave at the tipping point to increase our chances of falling asleep quickly. Since each cell in our system is designed to partake in its specific task with specific timing, all of our brain-body systems are doing the best they can to efficiently anticipate what is next (eating, thinking, sleeping). When the system gets mixed messages (screens in bed, night eating, working late, worrying), it does its best to pull the magnets toward what seems most needed (staying awake). Thus, Golden Rule #1: To avoid general mixed messages between your brain and sleep, do other activities anywhere else, not in bed.
Sleep pressure messages become most confused when we sleep longer than usual the day before, such as sleeping in on the weekend and then hoping to fall asleep early Sunday night to be ready for work Monday morning. Sleep pressure also fails to activate properly when we are physically sedentary during the day. Tossing and turning are inevitable since sleep urge is low, yet we are pressuring ourselves to get to sleep early. Thus, Golden Rule #2: To increase sleep pressure, avoid sleeping in and long naps, and be as active as possible throughout the day.
Tipping-point messages get confused when we go to bed when we do not feel sleepy. We might know we need more sleep and even be tired, but feeling sleepy is an important cue that we are at the point on a circadian wave that is more likely to make the critical transition into sleep. Dozing on the couch confuses this pattern and you may need to wait another 90-minute cycle to catch the next wave of sleepiness after you couch-doze. The waiting should be done somewhere other than bed; thus, Golden Rule # 3: Go to bed only when sleepy and do not doze off in non-bed locations.
When sleep pressure is high and we are at the tipping point in the wave, sleep will come more easily. Knowing yourself well enough to find a routine that works for you, without it becoming an obsession, is an art. The spiritual practice of letting go, and the humility of accepting that sometimes we won’t sleep well for a multitude of reasons, represent, well, a spiritual practice.
Golden Rule #4: Surrender, don’t fight with sleep (and get out of bed if awake). Sleep is less of a doing than a being state. Trusting that, along with a few rules for guidance, we can learn to fall asleep better requires art, science, and practice.
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Workshop: The Art, Science, and Spiritual Practice of Sleep
de Mooij, S., Blanken, T. F., Grasman, R., Ramautar, J. R., Van Someren, E., & van der Maas, H. (2020). Dynamics of sleep: Exploring critical transitions and early warning signals. Computer methods and programs in biomedicine, 193, 105448.