Insomniacs to prolific dreamers have asked me how they can enhance their dreaming and attain the quality and quantity of sleep many of us so desperately need.
I’ve heard some pretty wild stories about malaria pills inducing dream lucidity in the outer jungle villages of Thailand and the intense vividness of kava-kava affected dreams in Fiji. I’ve also heard about the dreamless or dream-distorted states sleep inducing drugs can create.
Without resorting to psychotropics, psychedelics or sedatives there is a natural state we can shift our bodies to access high quality sleep and elevate our dreams.
This natural state resides in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which is responsible for self preservation and regulates bodily functions such as digestion and wound healing along with sleep and dream cycles. In effect, it becomes activated when we are feeling calm and safe from real or perceived danger.
Contrarily, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) triggers arousal and our flight or fight response which can disrupt our sleep patterns, invite insomnia and evoke wild, vivid dreams and nightmares. An overactive SNS is common amongst people with anxiety, severe trauma and PTSD which contributes to the occurrence of frequent nightmares and PTSD nightmares. Yet it doesn’t take much to stimulate our SNS. An innocent scroll through social media before bed can get our heart rates fluttering, ignite adrenaline and stop short melatonin production making sleep more elusive.
By activating the PNS, we slow the heart rate, our muscles begin to soften and breathing returns to a normal rate. Within this state we experience a sense of complete calm and safety while some people also experience tingly or itchy sensations as the nervous system settles.
This state should be our optimal destination before bedtime as it can reduce the amount of time needed to fall asleep, enhance the quality of our sleep by reducing frequent awakenings caused by an active SNS and induce a more peaceful dream state free from nightmares and anxiety related dreams.
So how do we get ourselves into this sleep seducing PNS state? The secret is so boring and so simple it seems not worth mentioning. The fastest and easiest way to activate our PNS is by doing something boring. For me this involves reading twentieth century literature or watching slow and long winded murder mysteries around bedtime. I highly recommend any Agatha Christie mystery or BBC Midsomer Murders to add gravity to the eyelids. Some people even read their old textbooks or listen to droning audio lectures.
Clinical studies also show that yoga, meditation and deep breathing are ideal PNS inducing activities and are particularly helpful for anyone experiencing anxiety and PTSD.
I can attest to many occasions where I have overcome attacks of anxiety in the middle of the night and deep breathing leading me back to calm and sleep. And one of my most memorable and highly vibrant dreams recorded here which left me supercharged and abuzz on awakening was evoked by an otherworldly sound bowl meditation I had attended at my local yoga studio that evening.
Do you have any secrets or methods that better help you sleep or dream? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.
If you are having frequent nightmares (multiple nightmares a week), experiencing PTSD related dreams or long term insomnia, please seek professional help.
Annika Gieselmann et al: Aetiology and treatment of nightmare disorder: State of the art and future perspectives. 2019
Bessel Van Der Kolk: The body keeps the score. Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. 2014
Martina Kocian: (dream) My Angelic BFF 2017