By far the majority of people who come to see me for hypnotherapy have problems with their sleeping patterns. This can vary from difficulty getting to sleep, to repeated waking in the middle of the night and being unable to get back to sleep, to feeling exhausted when it is time to get up and start the day. Obviously all of these issues have a tremendously negative impact on the people involved. Thankfully, hypnotherapy can help in restoring normal healthy sleeping patterns. The first step in this process is to appreciate what is happening in the brain when we experience problems with sleep.
When we think negatively about events and situations in our lives, these negative thoughts and memories are accumulated and stored by our brain. It can aid our understanding if we can imagine that there is a stress bucket in our heads that is the storage place for all of this negativity.
The stress bucket can fill up on a daily basis whenever we spend time thinking about the negative experiences of a day. For example, dwelling on a disagreement at work, allowing frustration to take over when having to queue for a long time, or more serious concerns such as relationship problems. All of these negative experiences and thoughts contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety and will be stored in the bucket.
Thankfully we do have a natural way of emptying our stress bucket and this is known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM is the stage of sleep where we rerun the events of the day and also the contents of our stress bucket, either exactly as it happened, or metaphorically in the form of a dream.
A University of California study by Els van der Helm, Justin Yao, Shubir Dutt, Vikram Rao, Jared M Saletin and Matthew Walker (published in Current Biology in 2011) showed that following a period of REM sleep there was less activity in the areas of the brain linked to emotion (the amygdala) while the prefrontal cortex (linked to rational thought) was more active.
Thoughts have been moved from the primitive part of the brain, where they are an emotional memory to the intellectual part of the brain where they become a narrative memory. What this means is that you have a better control over the memory – you can think about it when you choose to rather than it dominating your thoughts. You may still recall that the experience wasn’t a positive one, but it no longer triggers the same emotional response as it once did and you are able to rationalize what happened and put things into perspective.
In addition to emptying our stress bucket, during REM sleep there is a decrease in the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, a chemical transmitted by the brain which is associated with stress.
Problems arise when our stress buckets are full to capacity or even overflowing and our brains naturally want to engage in more REM sleep in order to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, this is not possible as the REM stage of sleep is restricted to approximately 20% of our sleeping patterns. Therefore, if the stress bucket is full, it is never completely emptied during our sleep and we wake up still affected by those unprocessed memories and undoubtedly still feel miserable.
This is where hypnotherapy offers a solution by mimicking REM sleep, helping to trigger a reduction in stress hormones and allowing your brain to process those problematic stressful memories. Any time spent in trance in a hypnotherapy session will be in addition to the 20% REM allowance of your sleep pattern – so you can go for a hypnotherapy session, listen to a hypnosis CD before you go to bed and still then benefit from your full 20% allowance of REM sleep. In addition, your hypnotherapy sessions will address the important issue of learning how to control the amount of negative memories being stored in your stress bucket.