How Are You Sleeping?
© 2002 Linda Lane Magallón
Dreamers are such a deep lot
Then REMing with all that they’ve got
They enter just right
4 to 8 times a night
Whether they want to or not
The Stages Of Sleep
In the mid-twentieth century, laboratory scientists discovered that we
experience our most vivid, detailed and movie-like dreams when our eyes are
moving quickly back and forth underneath our eyelids. Hence the name, Rapid Eye
Movement, or REM. The period of REM is longest for folks who are acquiring new
information: infants and students, for example. It becomes shorter as we grow
older and if we have fewer new experiences. REM sleep boosts memory and
learning. People test better with a night of REM sleep than without. During REM
sleep the large muscles of the body are relaxed, even paralyzed. The arms, legs
and torso are limp. Breathing is irregular, brain temperature and blood flow
soar, the muscles of the middle ear contract and the face twitches.
The time between the start of one REM period and the next is about 90
minutes. This is same “fantasy cycle” that occurs in the waking state, although
we are usually not aware of it unless we are at rest and tracking our random
thoughts. The peak of the cycle favors highly emotional thoughts and images,
just the sort that result in dramatic dreams when we close out the outer
environment during sleep. The first REM sleep period may be only 5 minutes in
length, but it can last as long as an hour close to morning. The dream drama
shifts from quick previews to a full-length feature film. In fact, about 50
percent of REM dreaming time will occur in the last 2 hours of sleep. So, when
you are trying to recall dreams, this is the best time to retrieve them.
We can also dream in non-REM periods, although those dreams tend to be more
thought-like and analytical. This is the ebb of the fantasy cycle. In the waking
state, we are able to better concentrate on our immediate surroundings and
concrete problems. In the dream state, we are more concerned with mundane life
than imaginative fantasy. During non-REM sleep, there is little brain activity,
steady pulse, regular heartbeat. And a lot of snoring. But in the lighter stages
of sleep, motor activity is not blocked, so our bodies are free to move about,
although we rarely do more than roll over in bed. Actually, a “restless night’s
sleep,” is likely due to us coming to the brink of wakefulness, shifting around,
then returning to the sleep state.
The entire sleep cycle is a trip through different states of consciousness.
At the start of the night we begin at alpha, our drowsy, conscious mode and then
slip through four stages of non-REM sleep. Each stage puts more and more
distance between us and the external environment.
The last two stages are called delta. In delta, there are no large body
movements, unless sleep-talking or sleep-walking occur. Deep, or delta sleep, is
mostly non-dreaming type of sleep. Deep sleep helps battle infection and
depression. It’s the rejuvenating sort of sleep that combats mental and physical
fatigue and restores a sense of well-being.
Delta occurs during the first couple of sleep cycles. So, extending your stay
in bed will produce only more shallow sleep. This is great for certain types of
dream recall, like lucid dreaming, but not for good sleep hygiene. Despite
romantic metaphor, REM is not a descent into the depths of the underworld of
sleep. It’s actually quite close to the waking state of consciousness.
How To Get A Good Night’s Sleep
What’s the first step to dream health? I suggest you start at the most basic
level - look to the condition of your body. Forget trying to dream. Get a good
night’s sleep. Deep, deep, dreamless sleep. Allow your mind-body the chance to
rest and recuperate from the pressures of the day.
Is this approach bad for dreaming? I don’t think so. In the laboratory,
attempts to prevent REM sleep always produced a “rebound” effect. Once the
inhibitor was removed, there was an extraordinary increase in REM. So taking a
vacation from dream recall might actually encourage your psyche to return to
dreaming with renewed vigor.
The dreamers I know try different tricks to lure slumber. Some are quite
involved, others basic common sense. For instance, Colin told me, “If I’ve been
watching an action TV program or the news, I’ll look at some nature video or
something that’s more passive before going to bed.” I agree: the stimulus of our
daytime existence can agitate us, and putting a buffer between daily life and
sleep is very wise.
Kyla lies on her back, does deep breathing and repeats over and over, “My
brain is very relaxed. My brain is very relaxed.” Nowadays my brain is *too*
relaxed, so I have no problem there. It’s my body that needs to unwind, so if I
used this mantra, I’d change the wording to “My body is very relaxed.” For me,
body includes the brain.
Over time, I learned that I could get a good night’s sleep if I took some
• Close the window to keep out noise. Alternately, let the fan or heater
create “white noise” to mask background sounds. In addition, an oscillating fan
can simulate rocking motions, which lull even a baby to sleep.
• Make sure the bedroom had plenty of fresh air circulating–if not from the
window, then open the door to the rest of the house. Extra oxygen stimulates the
• Set the heater at a lower temperature and use extra covers instead. (Layers
allow me to adjust temperature without rising. I flip the blankets over with my
feet, while my torso lies still.)
• Cover the digital lights on the clock and computer accessories. Make sure
the hall light is turned off. (Even with my eyes closed, I can sense the light.)
• Make an extra effort to have good sleep during the nights before a big day.
(On the eve of such a day, I can experience loss of sleep from planning,
worrying or too much excited anticipation.
And if the day runs long, I won’t have my usual amount of sleep.)
• When the body is under-stimulated, exercise more, but not enough to strain
or cramp muscles. You get sleepy due to the fall of body temperature. Thus
exercise four to six hours prior to bedtime will initially cause your
temperature to rise; when it falls, you’ll get drowsy and be more prone to
sleep. (This helps on days when I’ve been engrossed in computer work.)
• Use progressive relaxation for physical tension (that’s relaxing each part
of your body, starting with your toes and working your way up to your head).
Some relaxation tapes are useful to this end.
• “Sing” to sleep with soothing tunes from a hand-held tape or CD player.
This is the adult version of a lullaby.
• Dull an active mind or distract yourself from worries with repetitious
tasks prior to sleep. (Counting backwards from 100 to 1 or counting sheep are
such exercises. Mantras and chants work, too.)
• Switch from logical thinking to fantasy, which is a type of thought pattern
more closely related to sleep, especially dreaming sleep.
Almost all sleep researchers agree that sleeping pills are virtually useless
and their addictive proclivity makes them a potential problem. Unfortunately,
some drugs, like alcohol, barbiturates and momoamine oxidase inhibitors,
actually suppress REM if used over an extended period. They also tend to keep
you at lighter levels of slumber. Due to the lack of deep sleep, your body can
take longer to repair and your mind, more time to clear. So while you’re on
medication, you may sleep longer. People who suffer from minor illnesses,
influenza and colds are subject to increased non-REM sleep.
Catnaps during the day throw off the sleep rhythm of the body and thus should
be avoided unless they occur during times when REM sleep probability is high. If
you rise in early morning, your peak for daytime REM is late morning. The
probability falls until the onset of night sleep, about 12 hours later.
If you do have trouble sleeping, it might be physical arousal: feeling
restless, tossing and turning, sweats and hot flashes. Or aliments, upset
stomach, headaches, wounds, strains and pains. High stress, premenstrual tension
and pregnancy equals the need for more sleep. As you get older, you don’t sleep
as deeply as an infant or child and, often, not as long as you used to.
Or your problem may be mental arousal: rumination, planning, worrying and
difficulty controlling thoughts. The best solution is to get up and do something
Check List For A Good Night’s Sleep
What factors influence your sleep? I suggest you use a check list like the
one below to review them. As I considered each item on my list, I judged whether
each factor had, overall, a positive, neutral or negative impact. Some factors I
couldn’t do much about, except be aware of their influence. The rest alerted me
to areas where I needed to initiate action. As you read these items, keep track
of your own score. What can you do to improve your sleep? Where can you just
relax and snooze?
1. Genetic endowment (+)
How long do you sleep?
2. Circadian rhythms (-)
Are you a night person (owl) or a morning person (lark)? Do you take daytime
naps? Go to sleep at a regular time?
3. Insomnia (0)
Do you have trouble falling asleep or difficulty staying asleep?
4. Medical condition and medication (-/+)
How’s the health of your body and brain? Do you take sleeping pills, herbs or
any medications that influence sleep?
5. Food and drink (0)
When did you last eat? Does hunger or a full bladder awaken you?
6. Alcohol, tobacco and caffeine (+)
When did you last indulge? If you do, it’s best several hours before sleep,
perhaps before or with a meal.
7. Environment (+/-)
Do you sleep with a person who snores or with someone who has bad sleep
habits? Are you willing to banish pets from your bedroom when they infer with
your sleep? What’s the condition of your bedding?
8. Location (+)
How insulated are you from noise, light and temperature shifts?
9. Daily exercise (+)
Did you get enough? Or too much, and feel aches and strains?
10. Activities prior to sleep (-/+)
Are you willing to turn off the TV an hour before you go to sleep?
11. Stress and anxiety (-)
What relaxation techniques do you use?
12. Attitude (+)
Do you like to sleep?
Sometimes changing just one item can make a big difference. Hope you sleep
• Ancoli-Israel, Sonia. All I Want Is a Good Night’s Sleep.
(St. Louis: Mosby-Year Book, 1996).
• Klinger, Eric. Daydreaming. (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1990).
• LaBerge, Stephen. Lucid Dreaming. (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1985).
• Melbourne, D. F. & Keith Hearne. Dream Interpretation: The Secret. (London:
• Perl, James. Sleep Right in Five Nights. (New York: William Morrow and
Company, Inc., 1993).
• Shulman, Sandra. Nightmare. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1979).
• Van de Castle, Robert L. Our Dreaming Mind. (New York: Ballantine Books,
• Wright, S. “Learning the facts about sleep,” Sunday Daily Ledger-Post
Dispatch, Nov. 15, 1987, p. 12.
Linda Lane Magallón