A Happy Memory Can Help You Fall Asleep if You Know How to Use It
Trouble sleeping? Try a technique called savoring, or imagining a positive experience in great detail.
Lying in bed each night, Andy Buelow often finds himself thinking one thought over and over: How awesome it was to ride the ferry across Lake Michigan as a kid.
Mr. Buelow pictures himself back on the ship, imagining the whir of the engines, the smell of steam, the rushing water, and the cold spray on his face.
“When I remember the feeling, I am asleep within minutes,” says Mr. Buelow, 61 years old, the chief executive of a symphony orchestra in Muskegon, Mich.
We know what we’re supposed to do before bed to ensure a good night’s sleep: Set a fixed bedtime. Turn off our screens. Create a relaxing routine before bed.
Now, sleep researchers say that what we think about as we try to go to sleep is just as important. They recommend that as we prepare to drift off, we practice something called savoring, which is imagining a positive experience we’ve had in great detail.
Savoring is well-studied as a strategy to improve our general well-being. A considerable body of research shows that it can boost mood and help reduce depression and anxiety. Now, psychologists believe it can help us fall asleep and have better sleep quality, and are starting to study its effectiveness.
Many of us ruminate as we’re trying to drift off. This is where savoring can help. “It gives your brain something else to focus on—something emotionally compelling and pleasurable,” says Dana McMakin, a professor of psychology at Florida International University, who studies savoring.
Savoring differs from other strategies you may use before going to sleep. When you savor, you try to re-create the positive emotional state of the experience. It’s not the same as practicing gratitude, which involves thinking about something rather than trying to feel it. And it’s different from meditating or trying to be mindful, in which the goal is to quiet your mind. Savoring aims to fill it up with positive emotion.
When you savor a happy memory, your brain reacts as if you’re reliving that enjoyable experience all over again, says Sara C. Mednick, a neuroscientist and professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. The activity in your sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of your stress response, reduces. And the activity in your parasympathetic nervous system, which restores the body to a calm state, increases.
Ready to try savoring as a sleep aid? Here’s how.
Pick your happy memory beforehand.
To help herself fall asleep, columnist Elizabeth Bernstein savors beach walks with her dog, Scout. PHOTO: ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN
It could be something big—a favorite vacation or the day your child was born—or something small, such as playing with your dog. It could also be something you’re doing at the moment (snuggling in your cozy flannel sheets) or looking forward to doing in the future.
When you’re in bed trying to sleep, re-create it in your mind. Imagine it with all five of your senses, adding as many details as you can. Think of those same sensations in your body now. This will make blood flow to those parts and away from the worrying part of your brain, which will help you relax, Dr. Mednick says.
I like to picture a walk on the beach with my dog, Scout. I start by envisioning the sound of the surf, the smell of the water, the breeze on my shoulders, the taste of the orange I brought as a snack and Scout’s happy face.
Get your ruminating out of the way early.
Schedule a worry session—at least several hours before bedtime. Set a timer at the beginning of your session for 15 minutes, then let your mind go hog-wild fretting. Write down all the worries that come to you. When the time is up, literally and figuratively close the book.
“This gives your brain an opportunity to worry and download the negativity early, to break the habit of ruminating at bedtime,” says Wendy Troxel, a clinical psychologist, a sleep scientist at Rand Corp. and author of “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep.”
Practice during the day.
Savoring on command may not come easily at first, as I discovered one recent night when I couldn’t sleep and tried to wing it. I attempted to recall a memory from the weekend when I went sailing with friends. But I had trouble sticking with it, and as my mind continued to wander I found myself silently berating myself: “Savor, damnit! Savor!”
Practicing savoring during the day will train your brain to focus on positivity. It will strengthen the memory, which will help your brain recall it more easily next time, and calm your stress response down, says Dr. Mednick, author of “The Power of the Downstate.” She recommends 10 minute stretches several times a week.
Stick with it.
Like any new habit, it will take time to stick, says Zlatan Krizan, a professor of psychology and sleep scientist at Iowa State University. Don’t give up if it’s hard at first.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
What techniques help you to fall asleep more quickly? Join the conversation below.
Mr. Buelow started savoring his happy memories of the old “City of Midland 41” ferry before sleep when he was in his 20s. He grew up riding the ferry each summer when his family traveled from their home in Wisconsin to their summer cottage in Michigan, and the happy memory of those rides and the freedom he felt on them helped settle his racing mind.
Although he rarely has trouble getting to sleep now, he still imagines himself on the ferry every night when he gets in bed. And if he wakes up in the middle of the night, he does it again. Sometimes he switches it up—picturing a night ride, or even a different ferry. But he always envisions the wind, waves and water.
“Riding the Midland helps me turn off my mind and sink into a sleep rhythm,” he says. “And it’s become a source of comfort.”
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