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Author: Marc Gravelle, Certified Hypnotherapist and HMI Instructor

Marc Gravelle

Date Published:
Publisher: Hypnosis Motivation Institute

We've all "been there." Tossing and turning, getting up, maybe reading a little, or watching a little TV. Then more tossing and turning, still unable to fall asleep and, finally, out of sheer exhaustion, we do "drop off."

Or we have occasionally fallen asleep and then, only two, three, or four hours later, woken up, unable to go back to sleep. We may even ask ourselves, "What's going on here?"

These two experiences are the more common forms of insomnia, i.e., 1) Inability to get to sleep. 2) Inability to maintain sleep. When either or both of these conditions become chronic, they can easily affect our ability to cope and our overall capacity to effectively function in our everyday activities.

The good news is, once we understand the real behavioral dynamics at work here, these conditions can be easily corrected.

How We Get To Sleep

Let's examine how a person who has no difficulty getting to sleep actually does it. Most people are unaware that someone who lies down in bed and "goes to sleep" actually moves through four different stages, the last of which is unconscious sleep.

The four stages of sleep are:

  1. Thinking
  2. Fantasy
  3. Hypnoidal
  4. Unconscious Sleep

Stage 1 – Thinking

When we get into bed, we start thinking about the events of the day or, possibly, what will happen tomorrow, or any myriad of things.

Stage 2 – Fantasy

Whether the person is consciously aware of it or not, his thoughts eventually turn to thoughts ASSOCIATED with relaxation. (Perhaps thought of a future vacation or activity in a place that person already associates with feeling relaxed.)

Stage 3 – Hypnoidal

As both the mind and the body relax, the muscles release tensions, and the person enters a light stage of hypnosis, known as hypnoidal. When a person enters this state of mind, he is still conscious, yet he also experiences time distortion and some amnesia. We actually must enter this hypnoidal stage because it is what enables us to attain the last stage. (No one, for instance, can honestly say, "Last night I fell asleep at 11:34 p.m. and 17 seconds.") It is the amnesia and time distortion aspects of the hypnoidal stage that make it impossible to identify the moment of transition from hypnoidal to unconscious sleep. We simply "drift" from one to the other.

Stage 4 – Unconscious Sleep

We are not consciously aware of anything going on around us.

People who have difficulty getting to sleep

This person has great difficulty transitioning from thinking to fantasy, or he simply stays in the thinking stage way too long; usually because he is worried about something or doesn't know how to control his own mind.

Now that we know about the four stages, the strategy for someone having difficulty initially getting to sleep is to skip the thinking stage altogether. Therefore, when the person gets into bed to go to sleep, he needs to begin visualizing or imagining the fantasy stage. Remember, the fantasy stage needs to be thoughts associated with relaxation.

One way to develop a fantasy stage is to reflect upon some real experience where you really were feeling relaxed. This could be when you were on a vacation or involved in some activity that you associate with relaxation. One of my clients visualizes riding north on Pacific Coast Highway, while another visualizes an imaginary round of golf on one of his favorite courses. Yet another visualizes being on a beach on the island of Maui. It is important that you use your own experience because you already associate that occasion with relaxation. It is most important that you stay in or maintain that fantasy thought process. That will eventually draw you into the hypnoidal stage and then into unconscious sleep.

Alternative method for getting to sleep

Yet another way of understanding how we get to sleep is to recognize that the combination of stages 2 (fantasy) and 3 (hypnoidal) result in the person actually hypnotizing himself. A person may not be consciously aware that that is actually what he is doing, but, in fact, it is.

How to use Self-Hypnosis to get to sleep

Self-hypnosis (like meditation) is possible because of two Dominant Laws of Suggestibility. (These laws of suggestibility, of which there are five, are literally how we learn everything.) The Laws of Association and Repetition are what make self-hypnosis possible.

Hypnotizing Yourself

Step One is to make sure your body is relaxed. Relaxation occurs when there is an absence of tension in the muscles. A good technique to accomplish this is to sequentially tense and release the muscles in the different areas of your body. Starting with the area of the feet up through the knees, first tense, then release the tension. Next, concentrate on the thighs through the hips, again, tensing and releasing the tension. Then bring your focus to your abdomen, chest, and shoulders, and do the same (tense and release), followed by the areas from your shoulders down through the arms and hands, all the way to your fingertips. Lastly, do not tense the mouth and jaw areas, but simply release any unnecessary tension there.

The next three steps replicate the physiological (body) changes experienced by anyone entering hypnosis. Take a really deep breath, hold it for a moment, then slowly exhale. (The brain and body require more oxygen to enter hypnosis.) Now create a swallow (you can do this by pretending to swallow something.) Next, roll your eyes up (eyelids closed, looking up into the forehead). This causes the eyelids to "flutter," replicating the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) of sleep.

There are several options for this next step. You could visualize or imagine your "fantasy" stage, as mentioned above, noting that it is very important to control your thoughts and stay in the visualization. Another option is to concentrate on your breathing and, only on the exhale, repeat a series of words, such as: peaceful, restful, sleep or beautiful, deep, restful, sleep.

With either option, you have by now, indeed, hypnotized yourself, and that state of mind will draw you into unconscious sleep.

People who have difficulty maintaining sleep

Let's ask a very important question: What would cause a person who has fallen asleep to suddenly be reawakened to consciousness? The usual culprit is something I call toxic worry. When we are worried about something that will occur the next day or about some important issue going on in our lives, it can interrupt our sleeping through the night. It is similar to children who are excited about Santa coming on Christmas Eve. They have difficulty getting to, and maintaining, sleep. I call it toxic worry because during those hours when it affects us, there is usually very little we can do, if anything, about the "issue" in question. No business is being conducted, people we may want to contact are probably sleeping and, at that time, when fatigued, we are not at our best.

Strategy for maintaining sleep

This strategy for maintaining sleep throughout the night is based on two elements of human behavior: 1) As we approach sleep, we become more "suggestible." Remember that to attain the unconscious sleep state, we must pass through the "hypnoidal" stage (of hypnosis). As we approach this stage, our mindset is one of receptiveness, or increased suggestibility. (For this reason, it is also a good idea to avoid depressing, fear-provoking news programs prior to sleep.) 2) There is one person in our lives to whom we are the most suggestible: ourselves. We talk ourselves into and out of things. Whatever we tell ourselves, we are more likely to follow through on.

Considering that toxic worry can trigger us out of unconscious sleep, a good strategy for maintaining sleep is to give ourselves a "suggestion" when getting into bed. Say to yourself (aloud or silently), "I refuse to worry during my sleep state. This kind of worrying accomplishes nothing. I deserve my peaceful, restful, sleep." When we tell ourselves that, we are certainly more likely to follow that suggestion (or advice).

Getting back to sleep

Sometimes, we do wake up in the middle of our sleep, whether it's for a trip to the bathroom, a pet disturbing us, a change in room temperature, a loud noise, a light going on or off, or toxic worry. An excellent strategy for getting back to sleep is to concentrate on your normal breathing. (What you are really doing is controlling your thoughts.) Become aware of how your normal inhale and exhale actually feel. This takes some practice, but once you concentrate on your normal inhale and exhale, begin repeating a series of words only on the exhale: peaceful, restful, sleep or peaceful, deep, restful, sleep.

What this repetition of words (silently or aloud) actually does is prevents you from going back into the thinking stage. You could also think of this repetition of words as a "substitute fantasy stage." With practice, you will most likely be back asleep within five to ten repetitions of the series of words.

© September 2005, Marc P. Gravelle, CHt