THE DETAILS: As we age, our bodies produce less melatonin. And we tend to have more physical conditions that wake us up: hot flashes, night sweats, trips to the bathroom, aches, and pains. A recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 65 percent of American adults have trouble sleeping at least a few nights a week. Of the millions of Americans who wake up during the night, some get right back to sleep. Many others start thinking about things that jazz them up: Tomorrow’s to-do list, a relationship conflict, worry about a child, or a financial problem. Then come the worries about sleep itself: When will I get back to sleep? Will I feel wiped out tomorrow? How will I get through my busy day?
The good news is that everyone experiences awakenings during the night and, with a little practice, you can learn to relax your mind and get back to sleep easily. For most people, that is the key to getting a sound, restful night’s sleep. Over the years, I have recommended a variety of techniques to help people get the sleep they need, including self-massage and other tactics for get back to sleep when your sleep is interrupted. Here is a method that many people find to be amazingly effective. It is quite simple to do, and yet very powerful because of its specific influences on the brain and the body. And, perhaps fittingly, it involves a behavior that all those well-rested teens perform many times a day: the eye roll.
Every parent has been on the receiving end of the eye roll, that classic expression of teen annoyance. But when done in a more controlled, deliberate fashion, the eye roll can be a tool of relaxation. The upward-eye-roll technique was used as early as the 1800s by practitioners of hypnosis to induce a deeply relaxed trance state. The tactic combines the powerful, relaxing effects of slow, rhythmic breathing, with a subtle upward shift of your eyes. The hypnotists who developed it would have their subjects stare at a spot on the ceiling until their eyelids felt heavy and they became sleepy. We now know that when the eyes are rolled upward about 20 degrees, the brain automatically shifts into a relaxed alpha state. This alpha brain wave state is characterized by a slowing of brain waves, to approximately eight to 13 cycles a second. In the alpha state, your mind becomes quiet and your body relaxed. So entering the alpha state in bed at night helps you to gently drift off into sleep.
HOW TO DO IT: You can learn the technique by following these steps. Practice it any time you'd like to experience some relaxation, and when you're familiar the steps, use it when you're having trouble falling asleep.
1: Sit comfortably with your eyes open, gazing straight ahead.
2: Become aware of your breathing, and let it be slow, deep, and rhythmic. Breathe in and out through your nose.
3: With each exhalation, allow your eyes to close. With each inhalation, gently open your eyes. Let your eyes continue to open and close in tandem with your breathing for several cycles, until it feels natural.
4: Now, let your eyes roll upward about 20 degrees—that's a little higher than eye level—and let your gaze be focused at a spot on the wall. The technique will work even if your eyes aren't exactly at 20 degrees, and the slight eye roll shouldn't be uncomfortable.
5: Begin counting backwards from 50, silently saying each number on your exhalation. As you count backwards, continuing to open and close your eyes, you may feel your eyes getting tired and your eyelids feeling heavy. When that happens, feel free to let your eyes remained closed. Let your eyes stay rolled upwards beneath your closed eyelids.
6: Continue your slow, deep rhythmic breathing as you count backwards on each exhalation. As you feel yourself becoming sleepy, feel free to let go of the counting and enjoy being in a relaxed state, or lie down and drift gently off to sleep.
When you use this technique in bed at night, you can look up at the ceiling if you’re lying on your back, or look at the wall if you’re sleeping on your side or your abdomen. Don’t worry about whether you can actually see anything on the wall or ceiling in your dark bedroom; it’s simply the upward roll of your eyes that creates the relaxing effect. The more you use this technique, the more effective it will be. It will work best if you use it every night when you go to sleep. By practicing it every night, the technique will become familiar, and will reliably help you get back to sleep if you wake up during the night. As your confidence in your ability grows, you’ll relax more easily and sleep more soundly. Sweet dreams…
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, “Mind-Body-Mood Advisor,” appears weekly on Rodale.com.