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Q: I would love if you could address some ideas on how to retrain insomnia with brain-retraining tools. What would be your advice for this so debilitating topic? You can’t do any incremental training on that, or can you? Also about chronic and persistent pain, as mostly they go together.
A: I've written a couple of posts previously about optimizing sleep and sleep hygiene that you may want to review to ensure you are creating the ideal conditions for sleep to the best of your ability. One of the things that makes the biggest different to people's sleep is exposure to sunlight first thing in the morning upon waking. It sets the tone for your circadian rhythms for the day and can greatly improve sleep (click on the optimizing sleep link above to read more about this). Secondly, ensure that you are getting some exercise or movement during the day, to the degree that you are able. Even people with severe energy issues would greatly benefit from doing a little bit - some stretching, walking once around the outside of their house or around the block to get some circulation & oxygenation happening. Start where you are at (slightly pushing the edge of your comfort zone) and work your way up. The benefits to exercise are numerous and it is an important part of our healing journey. It also has a wonderful positive impact on sleep.
There isn't really a way to incrementally train with insomnia but it is incredibly helpful and useful to train with the thoughts and beliefs you entertain around sleep. Often people who have trouble sleeping have a ton of thoughts and anticipatory anxiety leading up to going to bed each night. They are anxious about whether or not they will get to sleep, how long they will sleep for tonight, how they will feel if they don't get a good sleep, what tomorrow is going to be like if they don't sleep well. They resist and push against their current struggles with sleep because they want it to go away. This actually makes it harder for them to settle down into a relaxation response and ultimately drift off to sleep.
Do rounds of practice with your thought patterns & beliefs. When you notice yourself resisting, take in a deep breath, say to yourself "I accept my current experience" and as you exhale let go. Invite your muscles and your body to relax and sink deeper into the bed or chair that you are currently in. If things don't relax right away, try doing a sigh out loud on your out breath. Do this a few times in a row. Accepting your current experience doesn't mean you resign yourself to this being the way it is forever. It simply means that you accept that this is where you are at in this moment and you stop fighting with how things are. This allows us to relax and frees up more energy to use towards things that will be helpful and conducive to getting a good sleep.
Keep in mind that deep relaxation also restores our body and brain to a great degree. It is said that 15 minutes of deep meditation is equivalent to a three hour nap. This means that even if you don't get to sleep, if you can go into a deep relaxed state you are still getting some of the benefits of sleep. This can help take the pressure off of feeling that you have to sleep. Having a consistent relaxation routine for when you go to bed and if you wake up in the night can really help with this. I highly recommend the Insight Timer free app for your phone. It has a whole section for sleep. Yoga Nidra can also be really helpful to use as a nightly practice in bed while preparing to sleep. If you cannot use Insight Timer, there are lots of good options on YouTube as well. You may already have a favourite meditation that cultivates deep relaxation, and that is great too. Studies have shown that for people with insomnia, regular meditation increases sleep time, improves sleep quality, and makes it easier to fall and stay asleep. The regular mediation practices can take place at any time during the day, and it is still good to have a regular relaxation routine at bedtime. In my experience, meditating twice a day (for about 20 minutes at a time) has a much greater influence on sleep quality, depth, and feeling more restored in the morning compared to only meditating once daily.
If chronic or persistent pain is interfering with sleep, first, do what you can to increase your comfort. Some people find that taking magnesium consistently at bed time is really helpful to bring down the aching to a level where it becomes easier to sleep. This being said, we don't want to over focus on creating comfort and give a lot of attention to this aspect. Instead we want to put things in place as part of our nightly routine that may assist with increasing comfort, and then give it very little focus or attention beyond that.
Remember that chronic pain is actually created and sustained by the brain and nervous system. Even though we feel it in various parts of the body, it is the brain and nervous system sending pain signals back and forth to each other that creates the ongoing experience of pain. Over time, the pain signalling takes up more areas of our brain, so it fires more easily and quickly thereby creating the sense that our pain is getting worse. This is true even in cases where there was an initial injury that has since physically healed, but we still experience pain in that part of the body.
Even mainstream medical doctors and neurosurgeons who work with chronic pain clients are beginning to understand this, as evidenced by the presentations in the Resolving Chronic Pain Summit held in the USA in Jan 2021. It was fascinating to hear that their solutions involved helping people understand that their brains are sending them false messages and with this understanding incrementally training to do more, regulating the nervous system, and using tools like Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) to decrease resistance to the experience and take committed action steps to make changes.
With this understanding, we can see that the way to decrease chronic pain is to consistently do our brain retraining practices, to minimize our focus on it, and to systematically interrupt our thoughts or limiting beliefs about it. As you change your brain and nervous system's firing of pain signals, you will change your experience of pain. This will ultimately lead to deeper and less interrupted sleep.
Until next time!
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Candy Widdifield is Certified Master Coach, Registered Reiki Master Teacher and former Registered Clinical Counsellor, living in Calgary Alberta, Canada. She has a background in brain retraining & nervous system regulation, trauma, grief & loss, mindfulness, somatic therapy, & positive psychology. She taught the DNRS in-person program for 5 years, has over a decade of experience coaching brain re-trainers & provides mentorship to other coaches. Candy works with people all over the world, helping them to optimize their wellbeing and thrive in their lives. More information about Candy can be found at www.candywiddifield.com