Sleep – it’s the most affordable and natural method available for us to rebound, helping us to recover and renew ourselves.
Yet, with demanding jobs, modern conditions and the vicarious trauma we may be exposed to, the goal of achieving restorative sleep can sometimes be hard-fought. We may settle for resting in bed, wide awake, lists of work left undone or reminders of project goals pinging around in our head. Or, we may watch hours of media, falling in and out of light sleep for hours. Sometimes, we awaken in the middle of the night with a bad dream and cannot go back to sleep.
Dr. Chiara Cirelli, at the University of Wisconsin, has been studying the neuroscience of sleep and rest in humans. This is what we know – it appears that when we are awake, all of our neurons are constantly firing. When we are asleep, neurons revert to a fluctuating state, and there is a time in sleep where all neuron activity can go silent – and that silent stage may be where the most restful part of sleep takes place.
“This period of silence and hyper-polarization of the cell membrane is probably related to the restorative function of sleep,” Cirelli says.
It’s not until we get access to real, deep sleep that we get a cognitive boost from rest. Nor can our bodies process normal levels of hormone secretion until we have seven to eight hours of sleep. This depletion in hormone processing can affect all areas of our physiology and lead to imbalances resulting in negative effects in our sex lives, heart health and weight. (https://www.everydayhealth.com/sleep/how-sleep-heals-the-body.aspx )
The U.S. military observed during in World War II that many of its fighter pilots were making terrible, avoidable mistakes and errors in judgement – and they noted that these mistakes and errors were in direct correlation to sleeplessness.
As a result, the U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School brought in Naval Ensign Lloyd ‘Bud’ Winter to research, develop, and test a method for teaching relaxation. Winter had been training pilots to remain calm in battle. He also invented a life jacket that would automatically inflate if it came in contact with water. Stationed at the Del Monte Naval Pre-Flight School in California, he developed this method to fall asleep day or night, in any conditions, in under two minutes.
The technique was first outlined for the general public in Lloyd Bud Winter’s 1981 book “Relax and Win: Championship Performance.
Sound impossible? It is not. Here is a step by step distillation of the proven technique:
1. Work within the conditions available to you.
Fighter pilots were taught to fall asleep while sitting upright in a chair. Sitting back in the chairs, they put their feet flat and let their hands go limp against their laps. Luckily, most of us can lay down and do not have these demanding conditions. But – this shows that anyone can work with the conditions that you have available to you…
2. Relax your face.
Your face has 43 muscles. Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. Then, begin to relax all 43 face muscles . Your forehead should be smooth. Breathe out as you feel your cheeks, mouth, tongue, and jaw relax. There are 6 muscles that control your socket; feel them relax and allow your eyes to fall deep into your socket. You are signaling to the rest of your body that it is okay to rest.
3. Relax your upper body.
Feel your shoulders and allow them to drop and relax. Feel the back of your neck let go. Breathe in deeply. Then exhale slowly. Then begin to focus on your arms. Start with your dominant hand and feel it let go, relax and drop down your body. If it’s not relaxing, tense it first, then let it go. Focus on sending your arm limp all the way down. Let your hand and fingers fall like a heavy weight against your leg. Once you’ve finished with your dominant side, work through the process with your non-dominant side.
4. Relax your lower body
Start with your dominant side again, allow your thigh muscle to sink, like a heavy weight, then move to your calf muscles. Allow your ankle and foot to go fully limp. Feel your leg sink into the ground.
Repeat the process with the non-dominant side.
5. Slip into a meditative state
When you’re about to nod off, you want to fill your head with the stillest, calmest of contemplations. The goal is to clear the mind and it only has to be for 10 seconds. To keep your mind still, you can do this by holding a static image in your head. Examples given by Winter: “First, we want you to fantasize that it is a warm spring day and you are lying in the bottom of a canoe on a very serene lake. You are looking up at a blue sky with lazy, floating clouds. Do not allow any other thought to creep in. Just concentrate on this picture and keep foreign thoughts out, particularly thoughts with any movement or motion involved. Hold this picture and enjoy it for ten seconds. In the second sleep-producing fantasy, imagine that you are in a big, black, velvet hammock and everywhere you look is black. You must also hold this picture for ten seconds. The third trick is to say the words ‘don’t think . . . don’t think . . . don’t think,’ etc. Hold this, blanking out other thoughts for at least ten seconds.”
The cadets were placed in two groups: one implementing the relaxation techniques, the other was a control group. The relaxation group outperformed the control group in mentally-taxing classes, discipline-requiring drills, and physically-intensive tests. After six weeks of practice, 96% of the Navy aviators were able to fall asleep in 2 minutes or less — anywhere and anytime. They could do it even when they drank coffee and even while the simulated noise of machine gunfire and cannon blasts played in the background!
Of that time, Winter said: “We were losing pilots in training because they were too tense. Pilots who had been fine in training tensed up going into combat and were lost. Pilots on Guadalcanal couldn’t sleep at night because the Japanese were sending over nuisance bombers to disturb their rest. We had to figure out some way to relax them. We worked out a program that taught pilots how to relax themselves, and we ran a test on two platoons, 60 men in each platoon. The 60 who learned how to relax did better in everything which requires physical coordination.”
You can use this general relaxation method to get physically relaxed whenever you feel you cannot sleep. It also works when you only have a short amount of time for a nap; Winter suggested that even a 5-minute nap was incredibly rejuvenating.
In addition – always put away phones, laptops, and other screens before bed; keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet; exercise daily; and establish a regular bedtime and wake-up time. Get as much sleep as you can for optimal cognitive and physiological functioning.
For more information on the various studies conducted by Chiara Cirelli, MD, PhD, Professor
University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry see: http://centerforsleepandconsciousness.med.wisc.edu/people/cirelli.html
“Demand perfection of yourself and you’ll seldom attain it. Fear of making a mistake is the biggest single cause of making one. Relax — pursue excellence, not perfection.” – Lloyd “Bud” Winter (1909-1985) (Attributed)