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Words to Sleep By

Recent studies have shown that positive words played during sleep can give us deeper & more refreshing sleep. Here we examine those findings and see how we can apply it to our sleep routines.

Jenna Gress Smith, PhD
Jenna Gress Smith, PhD

· 2 min read

Research by Miriam LeMaistre

We’ve always been told to choose our words carefully when we are awake, but what about during sleep? Recent research has shown that the words we hear while we sleep have surprising effects. A study conducted over two nights in a sleep lab explored the influence of relaxing words played during sleep. During the first night participants listened to words with no emotional meaning (like “materials”) during their NREM, slow wave sleep sleep. NREM sleep is vital to wellbeing and linked to immune system functioning, hormone release, and muscle repair. NREM sleep has wider, deeper brain waves and is called slow-wave sleep (SWS).  

On the second night, the researchers played words that promoted relaxation, such as “relax” or “easy.” The study found that participants had more slow-wave sleep during the night of soothing words and reported feeling more alert the next day.

So how can listening to positive and relaxing words alter your brain waves and result in deeper and more restful sleep? More studies with brain imaging are needed to answer that question.

The research team suggested that listening to relaxing words during SWS may decrease activation in areas of the brain associated with arousal or wakefulness. Other research has found that our brains can process information heard during sleep and activate the “neural networks” associated with those constructs.

In addition to listening to relaxing words during sleep, research has shown that our thoughts about our sleep and mindset, in general, can interfere with a good night’s rest. We know that worry and preoccupation with poor sleep can sabotage our chances of restful sleep, partly because those thoughts activate our stress response system, and our sleep signals are muted. Daytime stress and lingering negative emotions about those stressful events can also add to the equation and cause disrupted sleep patterns.

It would be complicated (if not impossible) to recreate the exact conditions in the sleep lab and play soothing relaxing words during our NREM sleep, so what happens when we infuse positive thoughts before sleep or as a stress management strategy? Similar to this study, other studies have found that repeating positive statements, practicing  gratitude, or doing mindfulness exercises can help improve your sleep quality.

Our mind continually processes thoughts and words during consciousness and sleep. How can we use this to our advantage and use our thoughts and words to improve sleep?

  • Build-in positive word exercises with mindfulness or gratitude lists within 60 minutes of bedtime.
  • Develop your own positive sleep affirmations such as “I won’t let my day ruin my night”, “my sleep is more important than my stressor”, “this is my time to heal, unwind, and relax". Repeat these as you unwind and settle into bed for the night.
  • Try and “catch” yourself having negative thoughts about your sleep or day, write these down, and try to balance them with a more neutral or positive statement. Practices that involve balancing stressful thoughts should be done more than 2 hours before bed so your mind has time to let them go and your body can unwind.

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