Sleep deprivation causes a long list of problems. From weight gain to lacklustre skin to heart disease and strokes, a lack of shut-eye is bad news for your body and mind. The University of East Anglia even recently opened a dedicated research unit to investigate the link between poor sleep and dementia. Insomnia is at best annoying, at worst it could be fatal.
There are various reasons why people struggle to nod off. It could be the environment (too hot, too noisy, too light) or eating the wrong food (no big spicy curries before bed, please), but for most it’s stress and an inability to switch the mind off.
There are of course plenty of tools, tricks and apps at our disposal nowadays to help us get decent kip. From sensor-fitted headsets and mindfulness apps, to more word-of-mouths tricks – someone once told me that their mum swears by cherry juice. I’ve never tried it so I can’t vouch for that one.
The latest technique among those who know is sophrology. The method was created in the 1960s by neuropsychiatrist Professor Alfonso Caycedo, and is a sort of moving meditation combining elements of yoga and mindfulness.
Though relatively unknown in the UK – there’s currently only a handful of practitioners – sophrology is so popular in Switzerland, France and Spain that they use it as a birthing preparation in hospitals and the French rugby team reportedly used sophrology while training for the World Cup. Sophrology is also used in specialist sleep units across Europe to treat sleep disorders and insomnia.
How can sophrology help with sleep?
According to BeSophro founder Dominique Antiglio, most people have difficulty sleeping not because of something that’s happened that night, but because of something that’s happened during the day. “People have all sorts of stress during the day and when they lie down, the brain is there and you can’t fight it anymore," says Antiglio.
Sophrology is essentially made up of different routines which are a mixture of breathing, relaxation, visualisation and body awareness techniques to get people into a meditative state.
“A lot of people find that this is a very easy way to get into a meditative state,” says Antiglio. “Because when you’re very agitated you’re under adrenaline and it’s actually very difficult to reach that ‘zone’ where the mind is suddenly calm.
“Instead, we activate the body in different ways with breathing and visualisation – it’s a little routine that’s clear and gets you to that space where you can find resilience, where you can find calm, where you can find balance.”
So rather than just concentrating on your breath and trying to empty your mind, as with meditation, sophrology takes you on a journey, almost tricking you into feeling relaxed.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach though. Routines are created depending on an individual's stress trigger. “It’s important to look at what keeps this person not sleeping,” says Antiglio.
Once you’ve found a sophrology routine that works for you, Antiglio advises people to practice for 10 minutes every day.
What happens in a sophrology session?
I took my sister, Clara, along to try out sophrology. She’s long complained of bad sleep and routinely wakes up in the early hours and lies there worrying until her alarm goes off. Nothing seems to help – she’s tried HeadSpace, magnesium supplements, 5 HTP, and even strong sleeping pills.
The session began with Clara being asked a range of in-depth questions: does your body feel tense, do you drink coffee, do you work out, do you have fear about sleep etc…
For my sister, anxiety is at the route of her insomnia, so Antiglio personalised the session for her. Then we began, the routine only lasted 12 minutes and Clara fell asleep about 5 minutes in.
This is what we did:
Firstly, make sure you’re sitting comfortably – legs splayed, slouched, whatever works for you.
Raise one of your arms out in front of you, fist clenched but giving the thumbs up. Focus on a point on your thumb, inhale, hold your breath and bring your thumb between your eyebrows so you go cross-eyed. Close your eyes, exhale and bring your arm to lie on your thigh. Repeat three times.
The Body Scan:
Close your eyes and notice your breathing. Observe how your stomach moves with your breathing. Next focus on your head and face (forehead, cheeks, nose, jawline etc). Next scan your neck and shoulders, arms, hands, fingers. Think about the chest area. Move onto your tummy and lower back. After that it’s the pelvis, legs and feet. This should take about 5 minutes. Take your time with it.
Stand up. Arms down by your sides. Clench your fists. Exhale through your mouth and inhale then hold your breath and pump your shoulders up and down for a few seconds, keeping your arms straight. Exhale and release your arms and hands. Repeat two or three times.
Sit comfortably and visualise a bubble around you. It can look how you want: transparent, bright blue, small, or big. Imagine all your stresses are outside the bubble. Inside the bubble is calm. Inside the bubble you have the space to just be. Keep visualising the bubble and be mindful of how it makes you feel.
There are many different exercises within sophrology and the idea is that once you know them you can pick and choose which ones work for you. Antiglio says it takes around 5-6 sessions to feel fully comfortable with the method.
“It’s a more engaging meditation,” said Clara a few weeks later. “If you find it difficult to just sit quietly and focus on your breath like I do, the fact that there are different actions and tasks to do helps me to focus my mind more than just sitting.
“Also it feels kinder – when I lie awake I do the exercise where you put yourself in a bubble that protects you from your worries. My bubble always looks the same: a pink bubble and inside is a beach and sunshine. It's really lovely and has definitely helped me keep calm and get back to sleep in the middle of the night."
And who can argue with a practise that transports you straight to the beach?
Find out more in The Life-Changing Power of Sophrology by Domique Antiglio.