Are you down to your last nerve?

last nerveDo you feel down to your one last nerve when you struggle for sleep and are unable to rest? Well, if that one remaining nerve is your vagus nerve, you may be in luck.

That’s because the vagus nerve is the key to rest. It’s an essential part of the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system, soothing your organs after the stressed fight-or-flight adrenaline response to danger. With our stressful lives, the adrenaline response is in chronic high-gear.
But you can help your vagus nerve do its soothing job, even lying in bed in the middle of the night.
What IS this nerve?

The vagus nerve (vagus means “wandering” in Latin) wanders from your brainstem down the sides of your neck to just about every part of your body. Most of its thousands and thousands of fibers are sensory, meaning that the vagus nerve lets your brain know what is going on in your organs.vagus-nerve
The vagus nerve is vital for keeping our bodies healthy. In fact, researchers have discovered that automatic stimulation (like a pacemaker) of the vagus nerve reduced symptoms of epilepsy and rheumatoid arthritis.

Not all vagus nerves are the same, however. Stronger vagus activity—or higher vagal tone—reduces the chance of developing diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and even depression. And it increases concentration, memory, empathy, and even ability to have close friendships.

Most important for Restful Insomnia is this:
Improved vagal tone helps you relax more quickly after stress. 

Improve your stress recovery

exhale 2You don’t need technology to improve your vagal tone. You can do it with meditation and acupuncture, or you can put cold water on your face, especially after you exercise (!). That last one is not exactly helpful in the middle of the night.

However, many techniques help improve vagal tone when you can’t sleep. You may intuitively know some of the ones listed below, but if you also visualize how they calm your vagus nerve, you’ll make doing them more effective. Try these out when you want to rest:

  • Breathe slowly.
  • Exhale fully.
  • Breathe from your belly, if that’s comfortable.
  • Create internal chest pressure by lightly pinching your nostrils closed and breathing out. Be very gentle, so it doesn’t make you dizzy or rev you up.
  • Exhale with an “h-h-h-h-h” sound, also called Ujayii breathing in yoga.

Humming to relax

In my book, Restful Insomnia, I wrote about how humming softly helps you relax. It seemed really odd—even a little weird—that humming would be soothing. But during my research, I realized why it works: humming (and singing) tones the vagus nerve.

Here’s what I wrote in my book:

humDuring a sleepless night, with a wildly adventurous mind, I hummed with each exhale. Try it. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. You can feel the vibrations in your lungs and throat, and you can hear the subtle sound coming from your nose.

Use your imagination to send the hum around your body. Are your shoulders tense? Let the vibration loosen the muscles. Do your feet feel numb? Let the hum enliven them.

Check this technique out when you can’t sleep, and see if it opens your doors to rest.

How do you support your last nerve?

Try these vagal toning techniques and share how well they worked on the Restful Insomnia Facebook page. And of course, you can contact me (Sondra [at] to learn how the Restful Insomnia coaching program offers you personalized ways to relax when you can’t sleep.

Upcoming this fall!

New services are on their way! This fall, Restful Insomnia will launch:

  • New website—and logo
  • Free webinar—Benefits of NOT Trying to Sleep(working title)
  • Online trainings, including Can You Make Peace with the Nightand 5 Obstacles to a Peaceful Night

New webinar: Release 5 Obstacles to Rest

How to rest in really challenging places

How to Rest in Really Challenging Places

Some of my clients hate spending the night in an unfamiliar motel room. Others blissfully relax, letting go of daily life and stress.

But what about spending the night in really challenging places—like a red-eye flight or hospital chair? Not too relaxing…and it’s worse if you’re trying to sleep.

This became clear to me in February, when I spent nights on flights and in hospitals. Happily, there was a good ending, though in the midst of it all, it was a high-stress time.

Red-eye anxiety

The first distress was anticipating the night on a cross-country red-eye flight. How could I deal with a crowded seat, a sore neck, and stumbling to the bathroom?

Later I was anxious about spending the night in the hospital to support my mom, I’d be squeezed on a narrow recliner, face to face with her hospital bed, dealing with persistent interruption of nurses and aides.

Even supplied with all my restful gear—sound machine, neck pillow, eye mask—I was a stress-mess, thrown back into that familiar fear of insomniacs: I had to sleep, or the next day it would be horrible…and I would be horrible.

Hardly any sleep

Fortunately, once I settled down into my airplane seat and hospital chair, I remembered to focus on rest. Resting reduces stress and (yes, you guessed it) allows you to renew for the next day. The chill pill for my stress-mess was my current favorite Restful Insomnia technique—relaxing my face and upper jaw.

I don’t think I slept on the red-eye, though I might have dipped into it here and there. A passing flight attendant jarred me alert, and announcements about seat belts brought me back to reality.

In the hospital, my mom was in pain and aides turned on every single light to take her blood pressure—though I did doze a bit towards morning.

But I didn’t let these interruptions trigger the path of no-sleep-angst or stress. I just returned to resting, feeling my face let go into the pillow or chair.

Time passed smoothly

By resting, time passed smoothly. Why? Because I didn’t watch it tick by.

And the next day…. First, I got no complaints from my siblings—I consider this the best measure of my sanity level when I’m around my family. And second, I managed the real stress of doctors, diagnosis, and concerns without adding rest-deprived drama.

There are lots of techniques in Restful Insomnia that can help you reduce the drama of your nights and days—for every night and nights spent in challenging places.

Wishing you restful nights,

Insomnia Meds and Alzheimer’s

Insomnia Meds and Alzheimer‘s

As a society, we’re so used to taking pills—for infection, anxiety, depression, heart function, blood pressure…and insomnia. But we often forget how powerful these drugs are.

As you know, medications can affect the whole body and mind. This goes beyond the symptoms and even beyond immediate side effects.

It’s one thing to find out you’ve been binge-eating or online shopping in the middle of the night—reported with Ambien. It’s another to discover drugs can lead to long-term disease, like Alzheimer’s.

Benzos up chances of getting Alzheimer’s

A recent study examined long-term use of benzodiazepines or benzos—like Ativan, Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin—prescribed for anxiety and insomnia.Simply put: Older adults who took the drugs daily for over 90 days had a significant increase in the chance of a subsequent Alzheimer’s diagnosis. An 32% increase for those taking daily doses for 91-180 days, to 84% increased chance for those taking daily doses for more than 180 days.

Even those who took the drugs over 90 days in five years—but not daily—somewhat increased their risk.

The link was stronger in meds like Valium that last longer in the body, than to those like Ativan and Xanax that leave the body more quickly. The study investigated older adults, so it’s possible that younger people have more resilience. (Links are below to a detailed article and the study done in Quebec at the University of Bordeaux.)

Ways to manage fears

All of this can be frightening. If you’re taking these medications, it might be tempting to stop right away. But it is very important to taper down and slowly wean off these drugs. Stopping too quickly can cause changes in brain function, including suicidal thoughts. Like I said, they’re powerful medicines.Valium was my go-to drug in the throes of anxiety as a young adult. Now I know more about natural ways to relax, and I exercise and eat pretty well—for many reasons, including reducing chances of Alzheimer‘s. However the study made me wonder how much that will help me keep thinking straight.

But that’s a road to a life of angst, especially (last I checked) I can’t change the past.

Rather than get caught up in the anxiety over what might happen, here are three helpful ways to deal with this and other concerns about the future:

  1. Do the best you can now
    That could mean tapering off the drugs if you use them. For other concerns, it might mean stocking up preparatory goods for a power outage.
  2. Give thanks for the blessings you are living
    This moment here is what you’re afraid of losing. Experiencing gratitude not only brings you in the present, but it’s a powerful emotion that puts other feelings into perspective.
  3. Relax your body, to relax your mind
    A good way to start is to exhaaaaalllllleeee fully. Then let your inhale naturally arise, filling you with being here right now.
These three things help your brain function better. Then your nights and life will function better as well.

May you rest and enjoy your nights,

Heart cloud photo by Khunaspix via

Rustling Paper May Help You Relax

Get this! There are over 2.6 million “relaxing” videos online of women and men whispering, tapping their fingers, folding towels, rustling paper, brushing fake fur, pretending to cut hair, and slowly sorting through baseball cards.

I checked out some of these videos—highlighted in a recent New York Times article The Compelling World of ASMR..

I was captivated.

And bored….

It seemed very bizarre…and kinda stupid…to have a video showing just the hands of a woman whispering instructions on how to fold towels. Yet I kept wanting to watch, even after my mind had given up on finding any meaning.

Why do these videos work? Maybe they are so mundane, we’re lulled into serenity. Or they might remind us of a childhood experience.

But it’s a good possibility they might trigger a neurological response.

Relaxing tingle through the body

These videos were initially designed for people who have autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). For them, certain sounds and images cause a relaxing sensory tingling traveling over the scalp and other parts of the body.

ASMR has been linked to synesthesia–characterized by the blurring of one sense into another.

For example, people with synesthesia may see a color or sense a taste associated with a certain word. I have a little of that—2 is absolutely yellow, 3 is blue, 4 is green, 5 is red.

Why do so many like these videos?

Turns out, when I watched the folding towels video, I did have a subtle relaxing tingle sensation, though I wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t read the article….

But I might not have a little ASMR, because these videos are quite popular. They might work for just plain overloaded people (that would be most of us).

“ASMR videos seem to be a variation on finding ways to shut your brain down,” says sleep disorders specialist at Columbia University, Dr. Carl W. Bazil.

He says this can be especially helpful for people in the hyper-arousal state of insomnia.

Could be worth a try for you, before you head to bed.

–Wishing you restful nights,

Do sheets make a difference to rest?

When people can’t rest or sleep, they may hyper-focus on being physically uncomfortable.

That makes sense. If you don’t feel enveloped by the cocoon of your bed, your mind gets busy trying to fix what feels bad. That busy mind keeps you from letting go into relaxation, or into Restful Insomnia.

The environment can either distract or support our ability to rest. Even my late husband—who could have slept on a freeway meridian—made sure the sheets were just right when he went to bed. He wanted them soft, folded over the blankets, and to keep the chill off his shoulders.

I felt the same way, especially during some irritating insomnia in the cold of winter. I spent way too much time adjusting sheets, but I had to start all over again once I reached for a tissue or adjusted the pillow. Could be that my well-worn sheets needed to be replaced.

Sheet shopping can be overloading—cotton, organic cotton, micro-fiber, flannel, and more. I had just been through this when I sent my daughter off to college, and none of these sheets seemed worth the effort to buy.

Until I found these wonderful organic bamboo sheets online. These bamboo sheets create an amazing comfy cocoon for rest: soft, laying gently on the body, just right coverage between the blankets to feel surrounded by comfort. And did I say soft? (I don’t get any income from Fiber Element—just liked the sheets so much I wanted to share.)

How did having these sheets help me rest? First, they reminded me that I value letting go at night. Second, they enveloped me in comfort. And third, they helped quiet my mind—I was no longer on alert for how to handle and arrange my bed perfectly.

When you take care to create an environment to support rest, you are setting the stage for the renewal you need. And these sheets are a lovely way to descend into rest.

Forgiveness, loving, and responsibility

Every time I drove by the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and 53rd Street, I’d get mad, even after 15 years.

That’s when a stoned-out driver darted in front of me. I swerved, but we still crashed at the left front of my car. The damage was mostly temporary—almost a year of whiplash, mental fog, and dealing with insurance companies and lawyers.

Brooklyn corner (2)

But the long-term damage was my unwillingness to forgive.

Power of forgiveness
Most likely, you’ve heard about the power of forgiveness. Holding on to bitterness or anger is like gripping a hot coal in your hand. It burns you rather than those you’ve not forgiven. And as you probably also know, holding on to anger can keep you from resting or sleeping at night.

Forgiveness, you think, might be a good idea. But you may not know how to get there from here.

That was me. Despite saying “I forgive you,” and sending (admittedly pitiful) positive energy the driver’s way every time I passed that corner, I’d continue to feel pissed at him.

After 15 years, it was time to let go. And last week I figured out how. You may also find it helps you, so you can forgive and rest at night.

Finding your gift of forgiveness
To forgive, we often try to think good thoughts about those who have harmed us. Sometimes that gets the forgiveness ball rolling. But when that doesn’t, you can—oddly enough—start forgiving by focusing on you. As in what did you learn from the experience?

Last week when I passed the corner, I thought of what I learned from the car accident: to drive much more defensively. Specifically, I learned to stop putting the entire blame on the other driver. No, he didn’t look, and maybe there was nothing else I could have done…but I also crashed into him. It was a small lesson, but when I realized I had gotten something from the experience, it changed my view.

Once I could see this spaced-out driver as the opportunity for me to learn, forgiveness came quickly. Now, I’m no longer irked when I drive past that intersection.

Those who done you wrong
But what about those who’ve really done you wrong?

How do you forgive lovers who cheated or lied, bullies who backed you into a corner, siblings who excluded you, co-workers taking credit for your work? It’s harder to forgive—or to see what you’ve learned from someone—when you feel it was personal, especially if the pain is still sharp.

One way to forgive is to understand why you were there.

Perhaps early on you knew, on some level, that the lover who lied was telling tales. Maybe you didn’t want to recognize it, because you yearned for a relationship that was your fantasy ideal. You craved “happily ever after” so much, that you ignored the real person right in front of you. When you discovered it really was a fantasy, you got hurt by the lies.

But here’s the thing. When you discover you put yourself there—by not honoring what you knew in the beginning—you can understand and forgive yourself. With that foundation, it’s easier to forgive the one who lied to you.

No, it’s not easy to look at yourself. But it’s worth the freedom to live the life you want.

How does this help you rest at night?
When you let go of what’s infuriating you at night—and that includes the simple act of changing your relationship to it—you can return focus to your body and rest.

Does this method of forgiveness work for you? Let me know. And here’s a great article about the power of forgiveness, if you want to learn more.

May you find freedom to let go and be the best of who you are.
Enjoy your nights,

shooting-star transparent


Reverse Your Stress…Relax From the Top Down


While I still get insomnia, it doesn’t bother me much anymore. Except for the last few nights….

I traveled rocky sleepless roads filled with non-stop thoughts and stress. I had to continually ask my inner GPS to recalculate to the destination of relaxation.

It took a few detours, but I found a new Restful Insomnia route to the land of letting go. A different direction that may be helpful in your wakeful night hours.

What caused my sleepless rocky road? 

Bright lights, long nap, a little anxiety—various things caused my sleepless nights. While nothing was an urgent problem, my mind would persistently insist that doing something was more important than resting.

I didn’t believe my mind, though. I stayed in bed, practicing my usual Restful Insomnia techniques—almost always the paths to calm.

But those nights, I was stuck in the spiral of problems, preoccupations, and plans. When I did wander down a drowsy path—into the jumble of weird pre-sleep associations—I’d realize “I’m falling asleep.” 

A U-turn right back into thinking and wakefulness.

How to relax from the top down

So I tried something a little different. I rested from the top down.

The traditional method many learn is to relax from the bottom up—tensing and releasing muscles the toes, calves, thighs, and on up to the head.

I’d never had much luck with that technique, and tensing muscles didn’t help me let go, it just made me more alert.

Why did I go in the opposite direction? Donna Eden and others familiar with acupuncture and acupressure say that when energy rises in your body, you become more wakeful. I decided to see whether having my energy—or relaxation—move down would lead to rest.

I started out by trying to relax the scalp, but there aren’t a lot of muscles to release there. Instead, I focused on:

… Letting go of my face around my cheeks and upper jaw…
… Letting my eyes rest more towards “looking” at my navel…
… Feeling gravity help my neck and tops of shoulders become heavy…
… Softening behind heart, between my shoulder blades…
… Gently opening my chest…

Yes, I got distracted by my to-do list. But I kept coming back to relaxing from the top-down and the distractions became less and less:

… Softening the intricate puzzle of organs in my gut…
… Allowing the spine to sink into gravity…
… Releasing tension in my pelvic area…
… Imagining the femur (thigh) bones releasing away from the pelvis…
… Loosening my knees and calves…
… Releasing my feet and toes…

By now, my focus was in my body experience of rest, not on my thoughts.

After a few nights of practicing this top-down relaxation during difficult insomnia, I can unwind more quickly. It’s now the Restful Insomnia mode I use when I can’t sleep, allowing me again to rest at night.

Let me know if it works for you.

Enjoy your nights,

Shooting Star

Step 4: Relax into lack of control

Do you get irritated when you can’t sleep? Angry? Pissed off? Raging mad?

Join the club.

Anger is a terrible lullaby—no surprise. Instead of getting the rest you want, you spend the night noticing everything that’s wrong.

Think about this: Anger comes from wanting things to be different. For instance, when you’re ticked off during insomnia you may want:

  • Your partner to stop snoring
  • The neighbors to be quiet
  • To know that your 5-year-old daughter won’t crawl into bed with you at 4 a.m.
  • To be asleep already, damn it

None of those irritations are soothing in the middle of the night.

What can you do to get rid of the anger? Fix the problem, right? Kick your partner out of bed, scream at your neighbors on the phone till they’re too scared to make a peep, and lock your bedroom door. If you got everything under control, you could sleep… you think?

But no matter how hard you try, you can’t control or fix everything you think is wrong. At night, during the day. Or, need I say, in life itself.

What’s the alternative, then? Relax into the fact that you can’t sleep? Relax into what you can’t control? Surprisingly, those are the most relaxing alternatives there are.

I don’t mean resigning yourself to fate and then, resentfully, getting up to do something. Instead you can learn how to rest into your actual experience in the moment: your bed, your sheets, your breath, and especially the tension of your anger.

It’s a paradox. As you learn to be at peace with exactly where you are—even the exacerbating tension of wanting your night to be different—you can relax, renew, and perhaps even sleep.

That’s the aim of Restful Insomnia: to help you to let go of your conscious mind (which is thinking and staying awake) and move into letting your unconscious mind take the lead. Because it will lead you into rest, relaxing, and perhaps even sleep.

Why would your unconscious mind do this? It is naturally aligned with the body, which naturally renews at night.

Of course, when you let go of your conscious mind’s annoying behavior, it doesn’t fix every problem that causes insomnia. But when you change your relationship to insomnia, the problem of not sleeping doesn’t become a spiral of anger that keeps you awake.

You can also bring this gift of relaxing with “what is” into your day. It’s a chance to explore places in your life where you’re perpetually angry or irritated at what you can’t control: slow drivers, crowded busses, nagging sisters, persnickety bosses, saggy jowls, or messy teens. You can change your relationship to them as well, over time.

The wisdom of resting into insomnia can teach you life’s balance. It’s all said well through the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

~ Reinhold Niebuhr

Relaxing with this underlying cause of anger is part 4 of the five-step Restful Insomnia program:
1. Soothe your night environment
2. Befriend the body
3. Diminish the thinking mind
4. Release the hold of emotion
5. Tap into the natural or spiritual self

Let me know if bringing serenity to your insomnia shifts anything–just comment on this post.

Enjoy your nights,


Daylight savings time–split the difference

Daylight savings/standard/confusion time drives me nuts. Despite setting my clocks ahead during the day (which helps a tiny bit), my body and time orientation is all skewed for days. I heard there are more car accidents the Monday after the switch than usual, so drive carefully.

My idea: We should spring ahead one half-hour and stop the changes. A half-hour change seems no odder than our current back and forth system.

What do you say?

Enjoy your nights,

Insomnia without suffering

I had insomnia last night. I woke with a brain full of worries and sadness and lists and tension. I added the stress of no sleep to my list of woes.

I knew all the Restful Insomnia(TM) techniques–I developed them. Didn’t matter. I was so tense, and sleep seemed so far away, I couldn’t connect with trust that I could change my wakeful suffering. No, I would worry my way to happiness. Not the most successful plan, but well practiced.

Just try, it can’t hurt, I said to myself.  So I put on my eye mask, turned on the sound machine, focused on my body, and reminded myself that my thoughts were a story I was creating.

Insomnia without suffering. Okay, I can do this. Insomnia that drifted into sleep.

Glad I remembered.

Enjoy your nights,

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