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Sleep, Breath, and Anxiety

Updated: May 17, 2023

Two factors converge this morning for me:

  • Two nights in a row I removed my C-pap in the middle of the night

  • I am reading “What Happened to You” by Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey

On Saturday morning I woke early – with the approaching sun and sounds of bird-greetings – from an anxious dream. This morning – waking to early light and the birds again – I am dreaming in a state of extreme stress. As the dream-story unfolds, my bag did not get on the bus, is two miles away, and the holding place for bags of the folks leaving is a site of a civil disaster. I have to hurry to the site on-foot, fast, because I have nothing to protect my ears from the cold air, which causes a pain in my head that is intolerable. I get to the facility wishing I had taken a picture of my bag because I do not see it on the table.

Apnea is about not breathing. And in those moments of not breathing, our inner brain knows this is a state of distress, triggering fear responses to prevent death. In the two months of wearing the machine, I have had three such dreams. In the past, I have had three or more such dreams weekly. It turns out the first go-to technique to mitigate anxiety is to breathe.

Unhealed fears and traumas are easily restimulated in times of stress…physical stress like apnea, or emotional stress from life events. Those restimulations make freedom from anxiety difficult to achieve.

Dr. Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s book is all about the fear response…the inner brain working to keep the body alive – at all costs – by attempting to meet the needs of the upper or outer brain. The person with unhealed traumas is reminded and triggered by deeper memories of negative events, which frequently feature a state of avoiding trauma or death.

I know people who run ragged, who seem to always be working on a project while shaming themselves for not working on the other 20 that need to be done. They report very poor sleep. They say, “sleep gets in the way of my work.” It actually gets in the way of their busy-ness. Busy-ness is often perceived as a ‘better state’ than wallowing in depression, and is in line with a tradition that says “work is good”. The consequences of not being good were so great that busy-ness was better than being bad…no matter the buried layers of anxiousness it produced.

Today, however, we get to write a new story…one of healing our traumas, with self-compassion and awareness of what is truly good for our whole selves, well-being, and relationships.

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