Sleep: a hot topic, but what's in a name? 

Sleep! you read about it all the time! A lack of sleep is now even considered as bad as smoking! Sleep has also been labeled as one of the tree pillars of health, next to exercise and nutrition. As one of the first sleep psychologists in Belgium it is great to see that the subject you have been passionately working with for the last 13 years, finally gets the attention it deserves. 

During the last 11 years I have regularly given lectures about sleep and one of the things I consistently notice is that people still miss the most important piece of factual knowledge to really grasp how sleep and wakefulness are organised. Namely that often the real problem is not related to their sleep system, but the real issue can be found in daytime functioning! Yes, so your wake system is actually to blame. In scientific literature, insomnia is often referred to as an arousal disorder, instead of a sleep disorder. To understand why, I need to give you a quick crash course in basic sleep - wake physiology.

In our brain, 2 different circuits or systems are responsible for sleep and wake regulation: a sleep system and a wake or stress system. Due to evolutionary reasons, those two are very closely connected. Why? Easy, because sleeping is actually very dangerous! When we sleep, we are completely vulnerable and easy preys for predators. To compensate for this risk, our wake system has a direct link to our sleep system, so it can interrupt its functioning any time. This happens when our security can not be fully guaranteed, or if for some reason our stress system thinks it would be better to stay vigilant. But that's the thing, though? This link exists because we used to be confronted with real life-threatening situations, like lions, hyena's or other tribes trying to kill us. But all those reasons have disappeared in our current society. And yet we still lye awake, but now because of a morning presentation, because our kids are in puberty, because our relationship is not that romantic anymore,... you name it. Although these issues are not really life threatening, our stress system responds in the same way. 

Most of the time when people experience a difficulty falling asleep, either in the evening or in the middle of the night, it is related to an hyperactive and rigid wake system. This hyperactivation is the result of a chronic and continuous state of vigilance, starting in the morning, through the entire day until the evening. We function exclusively in sixth gear throughout the entire day, which results in a rigidity of this system. As such, our sleep system is continuously inhibited. This is in fact how these two opposite systems relate to on another: The wake or stress system always gets priority. As long as the stress system is still active, it actually signals the sleep system that it is not yet safe to sleep. This results in sleep onset problems, shallow sleep an/or frequent awakenings. Unfortunately, most people try to cope with these sleep complaints the wrong way, mainly due to a lack of correct information. As such, this often results in a disruption of their sleep system, on top of the hyperactive wake system. If you find yourself in this phase, the problem will not be solved with a few yoga sessions or breathing exercises… You will need to re-stabilize the sleep system, as well as increase flexibility of the wake system.

Do you want to find out how your sleep - wake system functions or evaluate if your daytime functioning is not slightly disrupted by your sleep - wake balance? Do you recognize yourself in the description of insomnia? Do you experience a lot of stress? Feel free to contact Brainwise and we will look together which points are open for improvement. We will provide you with a simple plan to reset your sleep - wake rhythm.