chapter 1 -Sleeping at the Switch

Sleep Switch.

There is no doubt in my mind the importance of good sleeps. I can feel devastating results immediately following a night of poor sleep. A few poor sleeps in a row cause physical mayhem. Lots of poor sleeps feels like it is bringing on early death. I think it might be true.

I discussed my difficulties with delayed sleep syndrome with my family doctor and he said, “falling asleep should be the most natural thing in the world”. Perhaps for him it is, but for me it is a struggle crossing decades.

Switches are everywhere. Computers and computer networks are a series of billions or trillions of switches. We enter a room and switch on a light. We switch the TV. We switch on our car. Switches are everywhere and work pretty much without problems. So why is switching our brain from conscious state to unconscious state so elusive for so many. Why is the brain switch so misunderstood? Anesthesiologists can switch off your conscious easily. So do those addictive sedative-hypnotic medications.

There are many downsides of the pharmaceutical approach to sleep. Medication does not just stop at turning on the sleep switch, but it keeps working and interrupts our natural sleep cycles. Using sleep medications ends up with less REM sleep. This in turn reduces the restorative effects of a good sleep. For me the hypnotic sleep aids give me a next day feeling quite like an alcohol induced hangover.
Books written as well as professional advice for sleep disorders concentrates of two distinct directions of treatment. One, the physical approach, involves supplements like melatonin, restricting specific wavelengths of light, darkened rooms, exercise, eating patterns and many, many more suggestions. The other path deals with the mind, using techniques such as relaxation exercises, mindfulness, self-hypnosis, guided imagery, and many, many more. These treatments and recommendations seem to dance around the direct ability of switching between consciousness and sleep and avoid what my doctor refers to as the most natural thing.

I have spent many nights just before falling asleep wanting to remember what was going on just before the switch went off. I would love to replicate those natural phenomena. It should be easy and simple. Why does one cross over into unconsciousness and at the same time not being aware of the actual point of drifting off. It is like I stepped back and was not there for that part. Missing segments of a podcast, TV show or conversation seems to be more common with being a senior. The dangers of falling asleep while driving is documented but misunderstood consistently. Understanding how our sleep switch works continues to be a secret of modern science and so elusive.

Some techniques work towards a positive outcome. I have a library of books written solely on matters of sleep and anxiety. I have been fortunate enough to work my way through two six-month treatments in a sleep center, I have had uptakes into a six-month hospital outpatient clinic for depression and another six month one for anxiety. All good stuff in some ways but none providing the complete answer.

Next, we can talk about more specific solutions.

chapter II – journaling

Chapter II

Now that we have determined the sleep switch is in the metaphysical realm of understanding we understand why no one understands, but anyway we might be finding some solutions that work. I do hear that some adjustments work well for people that experience poor sleep from time to time. When time to time becomes a chronic disorder when I review sleep forums, I see few to no solutions that anyone comments, “wow did that work well for me, and my problems are solved”.
Sometimes I get discouraged when something feels like it might be working but ends up being short lived. I find when I work at solutions that will bring me back to normal sleep it can make things temporarily worse. The fact that I can go for a few weeks with improved sleep and then regress to poor sleep without identifying what happens. From times in therapy, I developed thought processes that desire evaluating your current position. Journaling helps from many different directions. The key area that most therapists work with is the transfer of thoughts from mind to paper so to transition brain activity to paper instead of playing with memory. Rumination is a dreaded default brain thought process for many people. I have not found any positive benefits but instead it is a negative process, certainly as it pertains to sleep disorders. When one goes over the same thoughts, repeatedly, without really getting any resolution, it works to write things down. The brain goes to a mode feeling that the thoughts will not get lost and relaxes the process.
You can also journal by keeping a pad and pencil at bedside and if some nighttime thoughts come to surface during the night, you can eliminate excess mental activity by moving those thoughts from your mind to paper and feel relaxed enough you can return to those thoughts at wake time leisure. Regretfully those thoughts are typically less creative than they felt at the time of awakening, but that is sufficient to realize why it is important to move them from mental memory to written memories. Unlike a computer your brain can only store so many thoughts without experiencing some sort of anxiety.
Sleep logs are a sort of journaling that can be beneficial towards understanding your sleep disorder. The logs are particularly useful when using techniques to change timing of your circadian rhythms. If you have delayed sleep phase disorder as I do, you can move ahead your sleep times a full 24 hours with the hopes of resetting the biological clock by making yourself so tired you fall asleep at preferred time. You can also do the opposite and set an alarm advancing wake up time on a planned basis in hopes that fall asleep time will coincide. While I cannot rule out these methods, I found these were temporary for me and the delayed circadian rhythm returned to night owl cycles. I also found that when attempting these techniques your functionality during the wake times dropped significantly while undergoing the process. For me I do not think it was the solution because it seemed not the problem. I have reason to believe it could have been after most of a decade on rotating shift work, a nightmare on long term health. I have lots of empathy for those that protect or serve us during nighttime and other odd shifts.
Some of the things that intrigue me about journaling and simple unwritten introspection are discovering subtleties of how the brain works. I was training myself to make mental notes of where I was at mentally before falling asleep and how I felt in the morning. In one particular ah moment I noticed when I woke up, my brain felt empty, and my thoughts returned to working fully by adding in three distinct layers of thought. I wish now I had journaled the process but basically it was like establishing where I was first then bang some thoughts as to what I had to do come to a working level and finally my brain seemed to load in some key worrisome issues I had been experiencing lately. This happened quickly but the first time I noticed brain functionality returning to me in distinct layers. I think now, very unscientifically, my brain releases me from anxious thoughts while in sleep phase but because I often wake up with new or resolved ideas the brain is working at a more efficient level. It is those anxiety related thoughts that affect my sleep, at least while trying to enter the off-switch mode, and then it returns later after awakening, but at a distinctively different thinking level. The anxiety returns after brain daytime start up sequence is complete.
This is my own interpretation of what might be going on in my mind that counters what should be the most natural process, my ability to switch to unconscious mode.

Now carry on to Chapter three

chapter III – the Amygdala

Chapter III
Anxiety and sleep, what the heck is happening? If you delve into philosophical thoughts on evolution and becoming modern day human, one stumbles on different theories of what it must be like living in a cave. What type of diet, how we cooked our food, weapons on hand, warmth and perhaps the most concerning that relates to sleep is when and what carnivores would enter my cave in the middle of the night? I would miss my tempurpedic mattress, the overhead fan, the lock on the front door and the proximity of the flush toilet. For the caveman and cavewoman and cave kids there was no such security and comfort.
An interesting read for me was Jack London’s book Call of the Wild. He was alone in the wilderness keeping a long-term eye on a wolf pack. He had some interesting experiments like watching how the wolves established their trails as theirs by peeing himself in the middle of the trail. He noted the wolf pack went around his markers and developed a new trail and respected his own ownership of that portion. When the wolf pack was ready to have their babies and way before automatic night cameras, he experimented with various techniques to make sure he did not miss the birth. He noted the wolves got up frequently and turned around in their beds and returned to sleep after becoming aware of their surroundings on a frequent basis. He tried it for himself and got up and turned around and went back to sleep but was up on a frequent enough basis he would never miss the births while still getting adequate rest. This might have worked for our cavemen too while protecting their family all night long.
If you are a caveman and feel as comfortable as you can with what you have, establish a way to find, store and cook your food, keep dry and warm, your biggest concern might be restricted to the moment a beast comes into your space and looking hungry. You have sticks and stones and fire to send him off and then you return to whatever cavepeople do day after day. This is where the theory of fight, flight, and freeze relating to anxiety comes from. When under attack the body has one main gland that reacts, the amygdala, and specialized in dealing with your body and fear. A key point is that scientists have discovered that the amygdala does not evaluate the urgency or quality of the fear before it has its response. The fear could be a tiger or something more irrational like a perceived (imaginary) threat and the amygdala reacts the same. Most of your body functions are immediately directed to the amygdala in reaction mode and you might become frozen or have a panic attack.
I have developed difficulty having telephone conversations under certain circumstances and as a result all phone conversations feel more uncomfortable than to most people. Most likely it was a starting out job selling life insurance half a century ago. The training started by the boss asking if you knew a hundred people. Everyone hesitates at that one but with encouragement most people can write down one hundred people they know, typically starting with family and then friends and then moving on to slightly more distant relationships. With a sense of pride, I turned over my list to my boss in my initiation period. Pride turned to horror when I discovered the bosses next statement was to call everyone on the list and try to sell them insurance. After ruining many friendships and family and friends of family you then get a cold call message. You are assigned a room and tossed a phone book, and you start to call one hundred people every working day. You come back in the evening to call those that are more apt to be home then. The company tells you that in 100 calls you should get 10 appointment and if you get one sale from those ten, they you are off to a good start and an average life insurance salesman. They also encourage you to push the more lucrative commission and company results type policies even if they are not the best policy for the person or family member you are pushing them too. I lasted almost a year and for the next fifty years I have suffered on many phone calls. At some point in my different careers, I got pretty good at marketing and felt pretty comfy with my pitches. I had a rare appointment with permission one day to call a CEO of a major company to do an introductory phone call to secure a huge account. It was a high stake, once in a lifetime type opportunity and at the given time I made the dialing. When the CEO answered in a friendly voice, barely got out my name and a hello when my throat swelled up and I could barely talk. It was a terrifying and most horrible experience. Fortunately, I had on the end of the phone a narcissistic CEO that only wanted to talk and talk, and I never needed much to say other than thank you and goodbye. It was a reminder of how powerful anxiety can be and how devastating it is with its entire control over normal body functions. It is suspect key factor now to rationalize how poorly I did on exams at university and later with interviews. Anxiety simmers away and even with awareness and therapy it is extremely difficult to address. Understanding the way, the amygdala has evolved to protect the caveman from life and death survival situations explains why the amygdala is such a powerful influence in our body, an autonomic process and so difficult to improve on by adapting to current requirements.
The key factors for the amygdala:
– Autonomic critical key function of the body
– Responds to stress, danger, or perceived danger
– When activated it responds indiscriminately
– When perceived danger is present the amygdala response does not shut down
– When functioning over long term the amygdala becomes desensitized and flows easily
– One output of the amygdala is cortisone a rather difficult hormone for the body to dissipate
– Cortisone is suspected to be a major contributor in disruption of sleep patterns.
If you are afraid or angry the body tends to react by fighting, or running away or just freezing in place, probably nature’s way of attempting to avoid detection.
The heart races and many anxiety-based body functions kick in. The body behaves poorly, and sleep is not the bodies best form of defense. I went through a period of my life in severe depression, and I slept almost twenty hours a day for weeks but that was avoidance and like running away with no place to go. If you have ever had a panic attack you know how real it feels and if you have been fortunate enough to not have had one, then just let me say at the time a normally normal person has little ability to tell the difference between the effects of anxiety and feeling of immediate terminal medical condition requiring emergency room intervention. Certain ways our bodies function provide little awareness and those autonomic functions that keep our hearts beating and lungs working also run some aspects of our operation that do not always work that well. Modern day stress response is one of them.

Next to chapter IV

chapter IV – solutions

Chapter IV
Still working on my solution to a difficult problem:
– I hope I explained why I think it is difficult to understand scientifically why sleep can be so elusive despite being such a primary way to restore our body.
– Why sleep can be so elusive despite being a natural function
– Why current solutions do not work easily or long term
There is some hope. I read so many forums where people discuss each other’s sleep problems and how they looked at solving the problems, but I also see very little success. I feel bad that in today’s world so many people are having sleep difficulties. It might even explain why many people are making so many poor life choices these days with demonstrations, divorce rates, disrespect in general, doubt, insecurity, and poor political choices. Maybe the world would be a better place if we could just all sleep better.
So, I keep motivated to find a sleep solution. One thing about being a senior with delayed sleep disorder I can change my life to accommodate wake up calls that drift into the daytime. Not all appointments can be made in the afternoon and sometimes it is better with wake with the birds, but if my heart seems to not race so much by getting an extra ninety-minute sleep phase or two while others go about their business, well its easier when older. This not my preferred solution to improved sleep but at least a solution towards improved health as a result more restorative time in bed.
Journaling and simple mood enhancements, such as thinking about five best of the day happenings just before bedtime, does make one feel overall better.
Making positive attempts to understand daytime sadness due to poor sleep is not really about sadness. Exercise and fresh air can do wonders with immediate impact if you understand why, you are feeling sad in an otherwise great or supportive environment.
My current direction with hope for solutions is directed at understanding abnormal cortisone levels because of anxiety. For me it would help if I knew that it really was cortisol levels that was high at sleep time but our current medical plans in Canada do not pay for cortisone testing. My physician tells me any test only spots tests and you body levels cycle to the point where results would be ineffective, and the tests are expensive. My pharmacist was unsure what I meant by cortisol let alone find me a private test. The internet has some tests available. Typically, you send in various samples taken at allocated times in the day and you can average out the results, but these are quite expensive. I must think about whether they are worthwhile. I found an article that told of new testing methods discovered that can determine cortisol levels over time by testing hair samples. I look forward to finding us more about this process as it become more readily available. In the interim I can just assume my levels are high and it might be the problem and I can work at ways to improve and slow down my amygdala production. I am hopeful there.
I read somewhere from what I considered a respected source at the time, that all the solutions like mindfulness and imagery and relaxation take months of practice and routine to make any worthwhile impact. I believe that but my ADHD brain type finds it extremely difficult to keep up the practice long enough to provide beneficial results. With everything I have read and from many respected sources I believe that all the mind-based techniques are the way to go including settling down a distracted brain. I have hope for the future and pleased in the interim I have found ways to minimize the negative impact of poor sleep.