Ask Alina is a weekly video series on the Brain Gardening instagram discussing Alina’s experience and insights after recovering from chronic illness through a brain retraining practice. Questions are gathered on Tuesdays from that account’s IG Stories. Episodes are filmed on Wednesdays and posted as soon as possible. To increase availability and accessibility of these materials, they are being archived on the Brain Gardening™ YouTube channel, which includes the option for closed captioning. The videos are provided for information purposes only and should not be used to replace or supplement the advice of a physician or other health care provider. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions prior to using any information or resources contained on or through this video. Brain Gardening™ is not affiliated with any other neural retraining programs.

A transcript of the questions and responses contained in this episode is available below. 

I have been brain retraining for 18 months and have had much success but am at a point now where I would like to enhance the healing aspect of my brain retraining experience. There are so many different restorative modalities available to choose from. Any ideas how I could identify which modality would be best suited for my recovery?

First off I would like to say congratulations on your progress and commitment to yourself.  I’m happy to hear you have had positive effects from brain retraining. Looking back at my own journey, around the 18 month mark was where I established more regular use of other compatible restorative practices to the foundation I had built with brain retraining.

The thing that makes everyone’s journey unique is belief and what we personally enjoy or gravitate towards may not resonate with someone else but that doesn’t discount its effectiveness for another person. When I started to branch out from my brain retraining practice, I approached it somewhat by feeling and what appealed to my interests. One of the great gifts brain retraining helps to establish or strengthen is our inner wisdom and sense of intuition that is uninhibited by fear. We’re able to more effectively discern when fear is guiding or the limbic system is leading through dysregulated emotion, and when the higher self or the higher brain is navigating our decisions.

We also know that switching things up and changing routines can be a supportive practice for enhancing neuroplasticity and encouraging the brain to be more adaptable to change. So I think it’s a good practice to just explore additional things without putting any added weight or pressure in them having a particular outcome. You are already set up with what sounds like a sturdy foundation in brain retraining, so anything added at this point can be approached as a form of incremental training or exploration for mood elevation. You have tools from brain retraining to help guide and support that process of testing things out.

I know for me personally, when I tried things in the past, I did not have the intended results because my brain was still functionally limited by a maladaptive stress response. So restorative activities were not having their intended effect because of my brain being stuck in survival mode. But as I shifted out of that chronic state, I was able to benefit from such practices when I attempted them later in my brain retraining practice. So if you find something new you would like to try but experience reservation or hesitation because of a past negative experience, I would try to approach the situation with more neutrality so that any belief of doubt or skepticism isn’t informing the outcome of that experience. In whatever modality you choose to explore, I think that the best support you can offer yourself would be to embody a mindset of curiosity or play. If you can find things that are naturally that for you already, that might be a place to start.

For my own journey, I tried a number of different things just as a means of trying something new and not with the mindset that I necessarily needed it to heal. I actually found a lot of healing and rebalancing for my nervous system in pursuits for more play, so with the creative arts like music or dance, since my professional life was centered around the visual arts so that territory was a little more muddy for me personally. I also explored past hobbies and developed new hobbies, which I found to be deeply healing too. I think whatever you choose to try will be of benefit, whether or not you choose to continue it because it will serve to at least give further insight to what resonates with you and what brings you restorative neurochemistry. Ultimately it’s that chemistry that is doing the healing, so it’s not specific to the modality but what you personally experience in using the modality.

Do you have a specific bedtime routine?

I don’t intentionally have a bedtime routine. I try to be more fluid so that I don’t feel reliant on a specific routine in order to get adequate sleep and I try not to overthink it since it’s a process our body should naturally ease into. When I was more mindful or methodical of sleep hygene, I found that to personally fuel almost an obsessive quality about sleep or one that was rooted to perfectionism, so I abandoned that kind of process. However, I do have some general boundaries in place to help support myself in transitioning into a restful state. I reserve my bedroom as a place of sleep primariy and will spend my leisure time in the living room to wind down for sleep. I don’t watch tv in my bedroom or read in bed, which is something I had a habit of doing previously but found it kept my mind more active. So I have a subconscious association now with my bedroom being a sanctuary for rest and sleep, and when I go into that room, I default into that mode because of that association.

 Prior to going to bed, I wind down my day on the couch and usually watch Netflix with my partner and cuddle with my dog. So I’m engaging in activities that are supporting natural ocytocin production in my body. In some studies, oxytocin can promote sleep by countering the effects of cortisol, a stress hormone. I also am mindful about what I am watching before bedtime, so I’m not establishing a black or white rule where I am preventing myself from any screen time, but I’m being intentional about not watching something suspenseful or overly dramatic where it might draw too much mental focus from me and keep me in a more elevated state before bedtime. I shift to content that is more supportive towards calm, or lightheartedness such as something comical or something that seems to be really helpful is a show that is educational for a topic I’m not particularly interested in because then it kind of luls me into a state of wanting sleep.  I also am more mindful about not working on the couch and to having more boundaries between places of work and places of rest so that it becomes clearer for my subconscious mind. I also have noticed my sleep cycle is better regulated and I have a better quality of sleep when the room temperature is slightly lower than during the day and when there is no light pollution in the room as my pineal gland seems to be sensitive to that.

What do you do if you have an early wakening and can’t fall back asleep?

If I wake up earlier than I would like and am unable to fall asleep, I try not to view it as a bad thing or something that will dictate how the rest of the day is going to go from there. If I feel frustrated or pressured by that happening, that’s definitely not going to help me fall back asleep and it could also repattern my brain to do that every time I might wake up. I shift into a mindset of acceptance. Sometimes that can happen and it’s okay if it happens. If you lay in bed and aren’t asleep but you’re not really engaging in any activity, your body is still being granted rest. There is value in just that experience. It may not be the ideal but it can still be helpful and restorative. If you’re ready to move out of bed and start the day, there are no rules of how early you can start the day. We develop habits and routines but it’s okay to step outside of those structures and meet yourself wherever you are. Sometimes I start my day earlier than I expected to. Sometimes in doing that, my body realizes it needs more sleep and I’m successful in going back to bed. These moments don’t happen often for me but sometimes they happen and I try to make peace with that.

What to do about nightly insomnia while brain retraining?

There are a few things you can do. You can take an active stance and try switching up your nighttime routine and see if there is a way you can support yourself in transitioning into rest more deeply, such as something restorative that happens ahead of bedtime. I used to do gentle laughter yoga in the evenings early on in my brain retraining practice that would end with an extended “yawn” flow. Everyone on the call would be yawning over and over and your body releases relaxing chemicals while yawning, so it was a means of practicing and strengthening production of those chemicals.
Or you can take a passive stance where you’re not focusing on changing the insomnia, although that is still the goal, but you move to achieve it by shifting the inner association of insomnia. So if you experience it, it’s not having any emotional power over you where you’re frustrated by it but move to be more accepting of it. When I experienced insomnia, I would try to shift into focusing on what I still had and not what I lacked. So if I was comfortable and resting, I acknowledged the benefit of that and tried to settle into knowing that was okay so there wasn’t pressure to have “perfect” sleep.

Did you ever lack that drowsy feeling? I can fall asleep without aid but I never get that drowsy feeling.

Yes, I feel drowsy usually when I’ve had a fuller day. But there are times when I don’t feel it at all and I get to bed and might still feel awake but I fall asleep anyway. I think my sense of what was normal for sleep got influenced by the challenges and experiences I had surrounding sleep, but I don’t think having or not having that drowsy feeling is indicative of anything good or bad. It can just be your experience without that label or need to change it.

How were you able to fall asleep despite severe pain?

Sometimes I took an inflammatory medication or called upon a supportive tool such as ice or heat to help bring more comfort. I think it is okay to implement other modes of comfort alongside brain retraining if comfort is not yet available through it exclusively. The whole basis of brain retraining is to stabilize the nervous system through a foundation of safety and security. I don’t think it should be shameful or negative to call upon a support for assistance in achieving that, but I also feel like brain retraining can be a means of resolving that need for additional things if it is incrementally approached.

Before brain retraining, I wasn’t experiencing relief from the supports I mentioned, and endured the pain. I found if I didn’t focus on the pain and tried to move consciously to an area that didn’t hurt, my brain had a better opportunity to shift into a place where sleep would come. Whether it was out of pure exhaustion or not, a shift was more likely to take place if I somehow moved away from focusing in on it. When we sleep, our body also produces pain relieving chemistry so if the conscious mind shifts into thinking about calming topics, that chemistry can start to produce. Visualizations or guided meditations might help facilitate that shift in focus. I would listen to sleep meditations in bed prior to brain retraining in an attempt to create that for myself and sometimes it helped.

Did you take supplements to calm the nervous system or for sleep and if yes, what?

I did but I had adverse experiences, so where it was meant to calm, functionally my body was stuck in fight or flight so it was converting that calm chemical into an excitatory chemical instead. I talk more about this in the Benzo Recovery video about my experience with benzos if you are interested in more information, but ultimately, supplements were not a supportive part of my journey. So I didn’t find them helpful for sleep personally.

How do you use brain retraining to improve sleep?

I love this question because it’s got a big answer!  I’ll try to break it down simply though hopefully without diluting it too much.  Brain retraining rebalances the nervous system. It helps to reveal non-conscious patterns in thoughts and behaviors that are supporting elevated states of the sympathetic nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system controls our heart and breathing. Overactivation of it can lead to dysregulation in our endocrine systems, such as with our adrenal glands, our thyroid, or in reproductive processes. Our parasympathetic nervous system manages our body’s rest, digest, and healing processes. If the sympathetic nervous system is overactivated, we may have trouble sleeping, processing foods and receiving nutrients, or carrying out digestive functions. We can also have an array of symptoms and conditions that stem from the nervous system being dyregulated or unable to effectively heal or reorganize at a cellular level. 

Brain retraining helps you establish more balance, and one of the benefits of that can be improved sleep as the body shifts more into the parasympathetic nervous system. So improved sleep can be a big perk of brain retraining. It can even be the main focus if you’re not experiencing any of the other symptoms or conditions that are common from a dysregulated nervous system or a maladaptive stress response.

How do you retrain insomnia/coping mechanisms (supplements, earplugs, etc.) and how to get truly restful sleep?

I think this answer will be true for most conditions or symptoms, not just Insomnia but let’s address it from the issue of insomnia.

I think step one is making peace with the condition and not trying to change it directly, because that can be a place of disempowerment because we don’t have direct control over these things. Through brain retraining we provide a more supportive ecosystem within the body through thought and behavior management so that the conditions can resolve through the parasympathetic nervous system. So if you’re currently using a support to achieve sleep, I think that can be a good place to practice acceptance and know that if that particular thing is providing comfort and achieving the goal, it can be helpful.

However, if your mindset starts to shift into a place of curiosity to consider what might happen without the support or consider that maybe the support isn’t actually providing the ability to sleep but that the nervous system is more regulated now and able to sleep, I would gradually begin to decrease the use of the support. So it’s like incremental training, but you’re reducing something instead.

Now if the support is a medication or supplement, that would be a method to develop through the guidance of a medical professional, however, a similar practice might be what is suggested to create a gradual adjustment for the body. I think when changes are too abrupt is when things can be counterproductive to the goal. The same thing can be said for earplugs, maybe one night you sleep without them and if you wake up, you can add them back if needed. It becomes a more fluid process of adjusting as needed while also stepping out of the established pattern slightly to see if comfort still exists outside of that illusioned box.

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