Self-regulation has been succinctly defined as, “processes that maintain the functioning of the individual in optimal ways” (Siegel, 2012, p. AI-73). Self-regulating practices contribute to the health and wellness of individuals, couples, families, and communities. At the individual level, self-regulation can be as simple as taking time out for slow, intentional, conscious breathing. Self-regulation practiced in a community setting can involve singing, dancing, praying, chanting, mindful walking, and drumming.
The Five Rs of Self-Regulation
The Five Rs of Self-Regulation comprise a framework for understanding and applying some of the essential mechanisms of self-regulation. Let’s now review each of these principles as they relate to self-regulation for sleep, noting that these points can also be applied to problems of chronic pain, stress, and illness.
Rooting refers to being harmoniously connected to your body as well as sources of social and environmental support. An individual who is “rooted” experiences a stable and safe connection to their body, social relationships, and the environment. Methods that facilitate rooting include body awareness practices such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and some forms of meditation. As applied to the sleep environment, rooting is exemplified by a comfortable connection to one’s bed and pillow that allows for “surrendering” into sleep.
Rooting is about relationship, which can include the relationship to one’s body, others, and the environment. When you are in opposition to your body, other people, or the world, you are likely to experience conflict and tension, which can challenge your ability to maintain harmonious connections. The antidote for this stressful oppositional stance is creating peace through “acceptance”. Acceptance, however, is different than a feeling of resignation and self-defeat. Acceptance is about being aligned with reality on reality’s terms, which can feel energizing, joyful, and uplifting.
With regard to sleep problems such as insomnia, although you or your clients naturally don’t “like” the problem, a lack of acceptance of the problem can result in additional stress, shame, guilt, anxiety, or denial. As with so many other chronic conditions (e.g., pain), for those suffering from sleep disorders, acceptance is a powerful first step towards creating peace and opening the door to receiving help. Acceptance is further reinforced by belief, which creates a positive expectancy that your efforts will relieve suffering and result in healing. Rooting supports stability, acceptance creates peace, and belief provides the nourishment necessary for healing to occur. Practice: As you enter your bed, allow yourself to yield to gravity as if your body was sinking deeply down into your mattress. Let yourself feel the comfortable connection between your body, mattress, bedding, and pillow as a welcoming invitation to the realm of sleep.
Relaxation involves letting go of tension, a softening or loosening from a prior state of constriction. The process of relaxation is more easily facilitated when an individual feels stable and safe. Therefore, the deeper the stable “roots” (connection) you have to your body, relationships, and environment, the more effortlessly you can let go and relax. The opposite of relaxation can be seen in states of hyper-arousal, as when an individual suffering from severe PTSD is continuously “on-guard” and vigilant against external dangers. Practices and methods that can facilitate a state of relaxation include biofeedback, self-hypnosis, relaxation training (e.g., progressive muscular relaxation and Autogenic Training), and various breathing exercises. In relationship to sleep, relaxation of the musculature is often experienced as a sense of heaviness and softness. Practice: One relaxing self-suggestion that can support sleep is, “My body is heavy and relaxed”. Silently repeat this statement several times as you lie upon your bed, without trying to feel heavy or relaxed.
Respiration as a self-regulatory process refers to more than simply breathing. Respiration refers to breathing in a way that is natural, unimpeded, and slow. Just as rooting supports relaxation, relaxation supports self-regulating respiration. Practices that facilitate self-regulating respiration include yogic breathing exercises, tai chi, qigong, and various forms of meditation. In the ancient Chinese healing art of qigong, practitioners are often trained to breathe in a manner that is slow, long, deep, smooth, calm, and fine. Breathing in this intentionally self-regulated way can induce profoundly deep states of relaxation. Breathing with an emphasis upon an extended exhalation can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, providing a tranquilizing effect without the use of sleeping medications! Over time, the practice of intentional self-regulated breathing results in a respiration pattern that is naturally calming without conscious control. Practice: Take 5 to 10 slow, long, deep, calm inhalations and exhalations throughout the day and prior to bedtime, allowing your relaxed belly to expand upon inhalation and contract upon exhalation.
Rhythm refers to a repetitive pattern over time. Rhythm can be expressed by internal and external actions. With regard to the internal process of respiration, it’s easy to see how the rhythm of one’s breath can be relaxing (e.g., characterized by slow, long, deep, soft-bellied, evenly spaced inhalations and exhalations) or contributory to tension (e.g., characterized by a constricted abdominal region with rapid, shallow, unevenly spaced inhalations and exhalations). Rhythm can also be expressed through your external movements and speech. For example, when walking and talking, you express movement and sound in a patterned way. This pattern can be relaxing or activating, depending upon the pace and intensity of your behavior.
The pace of your behavior creates a metaphorical space in your mind and body that reinforces the process of slowing down or speeding up. Self-regulating rhythms can therefore be slow or fast. Practices and activities such as tai chi, yoga, meditation, drumming, dancing, singing, chanting, spoken prayer, poetry recitation, running, and walking can all potentially activate the power of self-regulating rhythms. It’s important to keep in mind that slow is the fast route to sleep-inducing rhythms. Slowing down will get you to sleep more quickly!
Just as the sleep state involves a slowing down of physiological processes, slow rhythms are supportive of sleep. In preparation for sleep, it’s advisable to speak slowly and softly, move slowly, and breathe slowly, allowing this slow rhythm to follow you into the bed in preparation for sleep. After all, when have you ever heard of the admonition, “hurry up and get to sleep”? Practice: Take time to walk slowly, allowing for one slow inhalation of your breath to be coordinated with one stride of your left leg and one slow exhalation coordinated with the stride of your right leg. Let this breath-movement rhythm be supported by firmly rooted footsteps, a relaxed body, and calm breathing.
Remembering refers to mindfully integrating the principles of “rooting”, “relaxation”, “respiration”, and “rhythm” that are described above. Integration takes practice; consistent repetitive practice leads to self-mastery over time.
A famous saying tells us that, “repetition is the mother of skill”. Although a highly skilled tai chi master might not have to remember to relax, most people can benefit from reminders such as “soften your belly”, “relax your shoulders”, and “breathe calmly”. Reminders can be received in the form of external instruction (e.g., guidance from a tai chi teacher, yoga instructor, or therapist) and can also be a result of ongoing self-regulating practices. For example, an advanced tai chi practitioner knows when their shoulders are holding excess tension because of the refined body awareness cultivated through the intensive practice of their art. In this way, “the practice becomes the teacher”.
Being mindful can help you to remember what is supportive of healthy sleep. Mindfulness has been succinctly defined as, “…awareness…of present experience…with acceptance” (Germer, 2005, p. 7). Mindfulness informs you about the present state of your mind, words, and actions. The formal practice of mindfulness meditation has been associated with several physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits, including emotional regulation (Chambers, Lo, & Allen, 2008).
The practice of mindfulness is like a clear reflective mirror that allows the practitioner to learn about the state of their mind, body, and emotions through the process of non-judgmental observation in the present moment. Mindfulness helps you to remember the intention, focus, practices, and attitudes that can support you in your journey into restful sleep. Mindfulness supports self-regulation and can be practiced formally as a meditation or “organically” through self-reflective awareness throughout your waking day.
A mindful daytime can contribute to comfort and ease during the nighttime, paving a royal road to sleep and dreaming. The invitation to you, dear reader, is to practice “remembering”.
Please join Larry Cammarata, Ph.D., Linda Cammarata, RN, RYT, Heather Butts, JD, MPH, MA, and Ed Glauser, M.Ed., N.C.C., LPC for a lively, interactive and informative webinar entitled “Eight Keys: A Pathway to Natural Sleep,” on Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. EST. This webinar will be an introduction to the upcoming online Mind Body Medicine Sleep Training that will be starting in Spring 2013. For more information and to register for the January 13th webinar, please go to http://www.mindbodymedicinenetwork.com/Webinars.html.
Chambers, R., Lo, B. C. Y., & Allen, N. B. (2008). The impact of intensive mindfulness training on attentional control, cognitive style, and affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 303–322. doi:10.1007/s10608-007–9119-0
Germer, C.K. 2005. Mindfulness. In C.K. Germer, R.D. Siegel, & P.R. Fulton (Eds.), Mindfulness and psychotherapy (pp. 3-27). New York: Guilford Press.
Siegel, D.J. 2012. Pocket guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York: W.W. Norton.