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Unwind and Unplug: Try This Somatic Exercise for Serene Sleep

Apr 02, 2024
 

Are you someone who feels a lot of anxiety or gets easily stressed? Maybe you rush around, staying productive all day long, only to have your nights (and your sleep) overtaken by circular, unrelenting thoughts. If so, this article is for you.

Hi, my name is Sherry and I help people reduce stress and improve their sleep.

A lot of sleep advice focuses on cognitive therapies such as CBTi and ACTi which focus on habit formation and thought reframing.

 

Cognitive Therapy For Insomnia

These cognitive therapies are considered the gold standard in insomnia treatment, and they can often be very effective. Afterall if we think that we can’t sleep, and we believe this thought to be true, then it is very likely that we will struggle to sleep.

The thought that we can’t sleep often acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy and it is important to address thoughts like this along with unhelpful behaviors such as spending too much time in bed.

Changing and reframing these unhelpful thought patterns works primarily through the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is often called our wizard brain and is responsible for reasoning and decision making.

As such, it makes sense to use logic and cognitive reframing when addressing the prefrontal cortex, after all, reasoning is what it does best!

 

How Somatic Therapies Help Improve Relaxation and Sleep

It’s important to realize that there are different areas of the brain (brainstem, limbic system, cortex, and prefrontal cortex) and that all these areas evolved to work in different ways.

Pretend you are explaining a life situation (maybe divorce) to your lawyer, your best friend and your 2 yr old. Would you use the same explanation (words, tone of voice, etc) with all of them? I am guessing not.

Just as you would likely use very different words and explanations to suit your audience in the external world, the different areas of your brain also understand and respond to information differently.

This is important because they all have a role to play regarding sleep.

 

The Brainstem and Insomnia

The brainstem (our most primitive brain area) is very important in regulating our nervous system (the fight/flight/freeze response) along with autonomic processes such as breathing and heart rate.

Also, many of our neurotransmitter systems originate in the brainstem, such as those involving serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which play critical roles in modulating sleep-wake states and maintaining overall sleep homeostasis.

When trying to understand the brain and nervous system it is important to remember that it is bidirectional i.e. it does not just pluck thoughts out of midair and then decide to take action.

Our brain (particularly the brainstem) is constantly receiving and monitoring information being sent from the rest of our body. This information is then evaluated to determine if we are safe and what action (if any) should be taken.

These neural feedback loops are why somatic practices such as embodied breathwork and meditation are so important.

We can choose to tell ourselves “I’m safe” on repeat but if the body is still sending stress signals (pounding heart, rapid breathing, etc) then the brain is unlikely to believe us, and sleep is less likely to occur. After all, we did not evolve to sleep while fighting for our lives!

 

Somatic Experiencing Exercise To Decrease Stress

One of my favorite embodied practices involves learning to feel the stress in your body. The next time you are stressed or anxious close your eyes and really feel into your body. Notice what you experience. Maybe it’s a tightness in your back or a feeling of nausea in your stomach, perhaps a sensation of rising up in your throat. It is different for everyone.

Just close your eyes and feel, without expectation. You might also notice images, colors, shapes, different densities and/or motion. It is very common for our minds to assign imagery like this in order to make the intangible tangible.

Learning to really feel and visualize stress in the body is the first step in releasing it so don’t be afraid to spend some time here and challenge yourself to become aware of as many details as possible.

Often just the act of breathing and allowing yourself to fully feel and visualize this stress is enough to dissipate it. If not then many of my clients find it helpful to move their awareness to another area of the body. Somewhere that feels good or at least neutral. Popular neutral areas are the tips of fingers, toenails or even the tip of their nose.

In general, small distal points work best as it can take a lot of focused concentration to notice sensation in these areas.

 

Learn to Feel Into The Body

Close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and feel (and see) as much sensation as you can. I often imagine putting my entire brain in my fingertip. Then, when you are ready, move your focus back to the stress you were previously feeling in the body.

Has it changed in some way? If so, how?

Continue to toggle your focus back and forth between the stress sensations and the neutral distal point until you feel (or even see in your imagination) that the stress has dissipated.

This technique is called pendulation in somatic experiencing and it can be a powerful way to help release stress, pain, or other stuck emotions.

The act of releasing somatic stress in this way helps to bring the body’s signals in line with our reframed thoughts and makes sleep more likely to occur.

 

Interested in Learning More?

 

If you would like to learn more or book an individual session, please visit the Work With Me page or enroll in the 30 Day Beyond Sleep Course

In the meantime, I would like to leave you with this important message. You are not broken! You are whole, perfect, and healthy exactly as you are, and you CAN sleep!

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