“Last night, I slept.” Those four words might not seem like a big deal to some people. But for women who have trouble sleeping40 million Americans are thought to suffer from a sleep disorder, and women are twice as likely to struggle with insomnia as menthose words signify a minor miracle.
For the past eight years, my life between midnight and 8 a.m. has been an excruciating stream of intensely vivid nightmares and sheet-soaking night sweats. Ive sought out neurologists, psychiatrists, and acupuncturists, and have undergone sleep studies, unloaded my deepest fears in therapy, and popped any sleep aid a doctor would give me.
Fed up with costly medications, nasty side effects, and no success, I was ready to give up on a good nights sleep and simply accept the few choppy, interrupted hours I was getting per nightuntil I heard about biofeedback from a friend.
This mind-body therapy, introduced in the 1960s, helps you tune in to body signals (heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, skin temperature), and then teaches you to control the ones that may contribute to insomnia (or panic attacks, migraines, and other problems). You learn to work with your body, not against it, and studies show it can be effective. I thought it was worth a try.
How it works
A child learning to wink by looking in the mirror is using biofeedback, says psychophysiologist L. John Mason, PhD, founder of Stress Education Center in Oak Harbor, Washington. After practicing, she sees the way its done and eventually can do it without the mirror.
Now imagine that, rather than a mirror, youre looking at a computer monitor with two undulating lines; one tracks your current breathing pattern (via soft straps around your chest and tummy), while the other shows what breathing at a relaxation-inducing pace looks like. By consciously trying to match up the two linesin short, by breathing deeper and sloweryoure applying basic biofeedback principles. The payoff: a way to quickly decelerate your heart rate and calm down.
Practice makes perfect
Using this method, I soon learned to slow my pace from my harried 15 to 25 breaths per minute to 8 per minute. The biofeedback expert I consulted, Chicago psychologist Michael Merrill, PhD, also discovered that I was a chronic breath-holdera common symptom of anxiety. When I did breathe, I didnt use my diaphragm, the main muscle of respiration. Merrill taught me to draw air in as if I were filling my belly, not my upper chest.
Thanks to biofeedback, slow breathing now helps me calm my baseline anxiety level. And I periodically check in with myself throughout the day and while lying in bed at night. I say to myself: “Am I holding my breath? Yes? Then breathe!”
Other biofeedback techniques use an EMG (electromyograph) to measure muscle tension (in the forehead, for instance) or silently repeated phrasessuch as “My eyes are quiet”to help you relax (called autogenic training). Ive had success zoning out to a “My eyes are quiet” CD that my doctor made. After a few minutes, it gives me leaden legs and twilight consciousness, a perfect setup for a night of deep sleep.
Relaxation imagery has also helped me. Ive learned to visualize a pleasant place, like my childhood backyard, and walk myself through various sensory experiences associated with itthe sun warming my body, the wind rustling in the trees. Once deeply relaxed, I imagine transferring that tranquil feeling from the therapists office to my bedroom. The result: “You climb into bed the way you wantcalm, relaxed, ready for sleep,” Merrill says.
My happy ending
For so long, Ive approached bedtime with a sense of dread. Biofeedback has helped me change the script, and the change has been dramatic. After nearly a decade of sleeping for no longer than two hours at a time, I can sleep for four hours straight and doze off again after I wake up. And its so empowering to realize that the positive change has come from within me.