A different view of insomnia
Could some insomnia treatments be based on faulty assumptions about how we go to sleep? Allan Baker of My Sleep Switch believes insomnia treatments need a fresh approach.
There are thousands of studies that show the link between lack of sleep and loss of vigilance. This fact is really important for those of us who fly planes, drive cars and operate machines: it is self-evident that we need a good level of vigilance to be safe and successful in these pursuits. People who are tired are often warned not to take part in these types of activities – they could be risking their lives and others.
Baker claims that we should look at the relationship the other way around; in other words, consider that by reducing vigilance we might actually increase sleepiness?
Staying vigilant is important at some times of our day, but what if reducing this vigilance is the answer for getting to and staying asleep? And, not just sleep when all else fails, but sleep on demand, when we want it.
What is non-vigilance?
Intuitively, we might think that the way to reduce vigilance is to invoke feelings of calm. However, as all insomniacs know, it’s not easy to just ‘be calm’ on demand. And, often when we fail to achieve this ‘state of calm,’ it creates frustration and consequently arousal. While we cannot manufacture calm, we can choose to be vigilant or not, which has profound implications for staying awake or going to sleep.
Calmness is not the absence of vigilance. This difference between the absence of vigilance and a state of calm is more than a semantic distinction, especially when it comes to the onset of sleep. Fortunately, Baker says that achieving non-vigilance is both easier to accomplish and more effective for sleep than achieving calmness. According to Baker, a calm mind is not a requisite for sleep but a non-vigilant mind is. A non-vigilant mind can be a busy mind, but one that is busy with helpful sleep-compatible thoughts and emotions.
Reducing vigilance (and insomnia)
Using this knowledge can help us achieve sleep on demand. Based on what we learnt above about vigilance, we now have new criteria to assess our sleep onset habits and any sleep aids we use. Baker suggests we ask ourselves: will this app, pillow, mattress, mantra, etc. facilitate a state free from vigilance? We should be looking for sleep aids that will help us transition from external vigilance to internally focused thoughts and feelings. We want to aim for habits and sleep supports that shut off that little gate in the thalamus that closes down our awareness of the outside world.
This physiological ‘gate,’ in a tiny brain structure called the thalamus, prevents all stimulation from the outside world (except the sense of smell) from reaching the centres of our brain where consciousness is created. Baker argues that ultimately, all those devices that send sound waves, speech, music, and throbbing audible pulses to our brain are received by the ears, transit through our thalamus, and into the neocortex where we register and recognise them. At sleep onset, those same sounds are cut off by the thalamus and never reach our awareness. Learning how to effect that cut-off switch is one of the (many) things we need to learn to do to master getting to sleep. Despite good intentions, devices that require vigilance and attention will only serve to keep the gateway open. Any attention to external stimuli will delay the transition from vigilance to internal stimulation – which is a condition of sleep onset.
Baker is a fan of progressive muscle relaxation for getting to sleep. Physical relaxation is a good cue for your body that it no longer needs to be vigilant. Reading about or listening to how to do this is great for learning, but ideally, you want to conduct the progressive muscle relaxation quietly, in your own mind.
When we cease attending to the external world, we can shift our mental activity to a soothing neutral fantasy world and stop fighting to keep that thalamic gate open. We can open up to an active process for inducing sleep by encouraging the brain to shift from alpha to delta waves by entraining it through a rhythmic eye movement technique Baker has labelled BLIS, which stands for Bi-Laterally Induced Sleep. It shuts off the external world, promotes delta waves, and creates sleep-compatible thoughts.
Find out more about Allan Baker’s patented BLIS technique in his book and e-book Blis for Insomniacs – Breakthrough New Techniques to Beat Insomnia and Turn on Your Sleep Switch.
Please note: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you have any questions about your sleep health, speak to your doctor. This article may contain affiliate links.