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G. Frank Lawlis

Frank Lawlis Ph.D.


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 personality sent off to the sanitarian, some sort of place where people lived in 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 is still 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.

This should not be a surprise and could be defended as true 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, and chronic pain. The association with depression is a lack of restoration in emotional reserves for even common day stresses. 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 beachhead hold. Chronic pain can be a direct result of problems in entering this level of sleep.

The REM (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 sexual hints toward you, and you may not even be aware 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 a 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 because your brain simply cannot adapt to new informational input. You get overwhelmed. You can't restore peace, and delusional breakdowns are not uncommon when you can't reach this sleep stage for more than 72 hours. This can be 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, leaving disease and mental problems at an increase, but the toxicity will do even more harm because of the lack of restoration physically.

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.

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 a good diet are important, but of all the factors, sleep is the most important one. At least it is not boring.


About the Author

G. Frank Lawlis

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