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Sleep and the mind – What happens to your brain when you sleep?

brain maze

Not so long ago, it was believed that when we fall asleep our brains and bodies shutdown to allow us to recover from the previous day. Today, science understands much more about sleep, sleep patterns and what happens to your brain when you sleep. We now know that sleep itself, is a lot more complicated and that while we sleep, our brains are in fact very active.

We all stir during the night, we move around, we dream, we might get up to go to the bathroom, see to the cat, the dog, the kids, open a window, get a drink of water or whatever, this because we sleep in stages and cycles.

In a typical night, we’ll go through 4 to 6 sleep cycles. These cycles generally last 90 to 120 minutes, although they can get shorter as we get older.

And then we have stages of sleep – 5 to be precise.

The sleep stages are:

  • 1-2 is light sleep
  • 3-4 deep sleep
  • 5 is REM sleep (rapid eye movement) – The dream state. In this state our brains paralyse our muscles, so that we don’t act out our dreams, now I don’t know about you, but for me, this has got to be a good thing!

Researchers have discovered what happens to your brain when you sleep. The fluid present in our brain and spinal cord, washes in and out like ocean waves, helping the brain get rid of accumulated metabolic “trash.” It detoxifies. It gets busy organising, consolidating and making sense of the information we’ve received during our waking hours. Important information gets filed away for easy access, while less important information gets pushed to the back, filed under “miscellaneous” or deleted altogether, to make room for new learning.

This is where it gets interesting. This is the perfect time to re-program! Our brains are open to new learning! Think of the possibilities!

Woman with sleeping cap on experimenting with what happens to your brain when you sleep
Photo by Maria Ionova on Unsplash

As we drift off to sleep, we’re usually going over events of the day, we might fret or worry about the following day, ruminate over what happened last week, last month, last year, what didn’t happen, what could have happened, what hasn’t happened (you get the picture) and these thoughts act as a marinade for the brain.

Think about it for a moment. How often have you gone off to sleep with a thought, and as soon as you wake, BAM! It pops straight back in again? It’s like you’ve just pick up where you left off. Groundhog Day.

Imagine if you were to start “taking control” of your thoughts as you drift off to sleep, replacing worrisome thoughts with more positive ones. Imagine waking up in the morning with solutions instead of problems.

And so next time you’re drifting off to sleep, pay attention to the thoughts you’re thinking. Notice if you’re focusing on the negative aspects of the day, things you’re worried about, notice if you feel angry, anxious, fearful or frustrated. Whatever it is, remind yourself that you are preparing a marinade, a heady brew that your subconscious mind will bathe in all night, anchoring your thoughts, feelings and emotions and serving it up to you on a plate with all the trimmings the following day.

Seeing as you are the chef in this metaphorical kitchen scenario, you get to choose your ingredients. You can choose to work with unpleasant, out-of-date produce or you can choose to work with crops that are fresh, vibrant, about to ripen and ready to consume.


Imagery distraction to help control what happens to your brain when you sleep

Simple, quick and highly effective. When you use creative imagery (all humans have this ability) you are speaking the language of the subconscious mind and helping control what happens to your brain when you sleep.

Your subconscious mind isn’t judging your thoughts, feelings or behaviours, nor does it distinguish reality from fantasy. Why not put it to the test right now;

Think of a time when someone or something, made you belly laugh, something that made you laugh out loud, take your time, and conjure up the scene. Relive it in full colour. Remember as much about the moment as you can, what you heard, where you were, who you were with. Bring the scene back to life and feel the feelings you felt. You know it’s just a memory, but your subconscious mind is playing it back in real time, feelings and all.

So, as you lay in bed and prepare to fall asleep, imagine yourself in an engaging and interesting scenario. Perhaps a wonderful holiday, a paradise island, cooking a meal, enjoying time with friends or family, sipping a cool drink in the garden on a sunny afternoon, walking the dog, anything that makes you feel good, real or imaginary, it really doesn’t matter, using mental imagery like this increases sleep quality and prepares you for a more positive state of mind.

The aim here is to experience the scene as deeply as possible, imagining all the sights, sounds, smells and good feelings that go with it, keep bringing yourself back to the scene until it becomes almost impossible to think of anything else.

Caveat. Choose something calming and relaxing, because if you were to imagine scenarios that arouse excitement, you are unlikely be relaxed enough to sleep, let alone marinade!

And so now you know what happens to your brain when you sleep, you can start focusing your subconscious mind on happier, healthier, more productive thoughts, working on and producing, new ideas, inspiration and motivation for the day ahead.

Find out some incredible mindfulness meditation tips to help you control what happens to your brain when you sleep and get a better nights’ rest.

“Change your thoughts and you can change your world.”

Norman Vincent Peale
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