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STRESS AND SLEEP
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The body has a “clock” called the circadian rhythms. People with normal circadian rhythms are synchronized with the cycle of the sun. They are most alert during the morning and afternoon and tend to feel sleepy and drowsy toward evening. They experience the need for sleep at night when it is dark.
Circadian rhythms are controlled by a structure in the brain called the hypothalamus. These nerve cells are responsible for “keeping time” based on the amount of light stimulation. So, without artificial light interference, the circadian rhythms are set to follow the 24-hour cycle of the sun.
When we close our eyes to go to sleep, our brainwave patterns change. In humans, there are five stages of sleep that can be identified by brainwave patterns (EEG). Stage 1 is when the person gets in bed and closes the eyes. Brainwave patterns begin to slow. Alpha brainwaves are prominent (8 to 12 cycles per second). As time goes by, the sleep period begins. During Stage 2 sleep, brainwave patterns slow even more. Theta brainwaves (3 to 7cps) are the hallmark of Stage 2 sleep. Stage 3 sleep is an even deeper level of sleep. Paradoxically, brainwave patterns increase at times with the presence of sleep spindles. Sleep spindles are bursts of brainwave activity (12 to 14 cps) that last less than one second each. Stage 4 sleep is even deeper. Delta brainwaves (1/2 to 2 cps) are present at this stage. The deepest stage of sleep is called rapid-eye-movement or REM sleep. Although REM sleep is the deepest level of sleep, the brainwave profile is similar to the waking brainwave profile. This stage is where the total relaxation of the skeletal muscles occurs. The parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response is at its peak. Major body muscles become virtually paralyzed. Vivid dreams are associated with REM sleep. In summary, sleep increases and decreases in depth and periods of REM sleep get longer as the night progresses.
Neurofeedback teaches how to consciously regulate unconscious bodily functions. We can learn to have conscious control over the brainwaves that we would like to either increase or decrease. Relaxation techniques coupled with neurofeedback can help reduce and/or eliminate sleep problems. Brainwaves are electronically monitored, recorded, and analyzed by a computer. The computer software processes the signal and provides visual and auditory feedback in the form of a video game. “Playing” the video game by regulating brainwaves, the person learns to decrease maladaptive brainwave patterns while increasing adaptive frequencies. Gradually, the brain responds to the feedback by learning new brainwave patterns. The brain can be “taught” to slow down, relax, and let go, which is often a problem with sleep disorders. The brain is incredibly adaptable and capable of learning. It can learn to improve its own performance when it is given feedback about what to change. Neurofeedback can help a person learn how to produce slower brainwave activity that sets the stage for sleep (e.g., Alpha, Theta). It is a safe, effective, non-invasive procedure that has been useful to many.
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