May 26, 2021

Minute read

How NSDR Combats Overstimulation and May Be the Key to Improving Your Cognitive Function

If you struggle with a constant barrage of feelings, thoughts, and sensations interrupting your life, even if they are somehow attempting to help you be a more productive human, you’re not alone.

All those thoughts, feelings and sensations result in overstimulation, which inhibits your brain’s natural resiliency and plasticity. And that decreases your cognitive function and habit control.

So how can you turn off this constant flow of stimulation?

Although the answer isn’t quite as simple as hopping on a cushion and chanting “aum” or popping a pill, there is a practice that can physiologically slow down the stuff between your ears (in a good way).

And the best thing? Anyone can do it!

This practice is called non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) — and you can do it almost any time, anywhere, and for free.

It’s a simple practice that is exactly what it sounds like: you are not actually sleeping, but you are slowing down your thought-flow and brain wave frequency, permitting your brain and body to rest deeply.

NSDR via Nidra 

An excellent way to experience NSDR is through a practice called yoga nidra, sometimes called sleeping yoga.

If you’ve been to a yoga nidra class, you may remember being cocooned into a cozy caterpillar ball with blankets, bolsters, and pillows. After about two minutes of darkness, music, and your teacher’s soothing voice, you may have found yourself journeying to dreamland.

Now, I’m not saying an extra 30 minute nap is a bad thing — I’m all for naps — but the practice of yoga nidra isn’t about falling asleep, per se. Instead, it’s about allowing your brain to enter into a hypnagogic state — the mysterious and wonderful place between being awake and asleep.  

The term hypnagogia come from the greek hypn, meaning to sleep, and agogic, meaning to induce or to lead. In simple terms, it’s that sweet period where our body is permitted to rest entirely, but where our mind is still slightly lucid — and it’s a simple and accessible way to practice NSDR.

By allowing your brainwaves to slow down, this practice communicates to both your brain and body that it’s okay to relax and let go a bit! This process allows your nervous system to function parasympathetically, and to step out of the fight-flight-or-freeze sympathetic state in which you function most of the time.

When you are in that parasympathetic “safe” state, your body systems function in the way they should (yes I’m looking at you breath, bowels and hormones) and you just feel better. I mean, who wants to feel like a tiger is chasing them ALL the time.  

What Happens Between Your Ears During NSDR 

So what’s actually going on during NSDR and why is it different from normal sleeping?

In order for us to experience the blissful relaxation of NSDR, we need to allow our brain waves to slow down. We do so by observing the body and breath in a particular way to encourage our relaxation response. This process releases serotonin from your guts and activates your parasypathetic nervous system.

If you were to hook your brain up to an EEG during NSDR, you’d see it shift from an active beta frequency (12-35 HZ) (which is where you spend most of your day) to a conscious meditation state of an alpha frequency (8-12 HZ), and then into a deep meditation/flow state of theta frequency (4-8 HZ). In this state, the brain frequency slows, along with the frequency of our thoughts. 

Ideally, the NSDR practice will cause your brain to operate at an even slower operational frequency (.5-3 HZ), where you arrive at only 1-3 thoughts per minute (as opposed to our normal 35, per the National Science Foundation). This state is when your brain is functioning in Delta frequency, something that typically only occurs during our deepest sleep. 

This is important because many of us never enter delta frequency on a day-to-day basis, even during a night’s sleep. In fact, in our fast paced world full of constant stimulation and the urge to be “on guard” at every twist and turn, it is rare that we experience theta and delta frequencies at all.

But it’s during these important frequencies, that our bodies get the chance and space to truly rest. During these periods of very low brain frequency function, we have significantly decreased cortisol and norepinephrine levels, our body goes into parasympathetic state, and our stimulation levels are at their lowest — allowing us to rest deeply, improve knowledge retention, and for physiological healing to occur.

Cute puppy sleeping on the floor

The Benefits of NSDR 

You can imagine this process as a reset for your brain and a refueling of your prefrontal cortex.

And, the benefits are significant. NSDR can help with cognitive performance, skill retention, brain plasticity, and cognitive processing. When we are in this state of fewer thoughts, there is less noise, so it allows for affirmation and reinforcement of newly formed knowledge, desirable habit loops, and neuropathways. All of which are proven to be essential to our prefrontal cortex (the decision maker).

It also provides a fertile ground for releasing and addressing the less desirable habituations, behaviors, and “connections.”  You can think of NSDR as an opportunity for spring cleaning the stuff between your ears!

Beyond all the other juicy benefits, this practice also allows you to develop greater self-regulation and self-control. The practice heightens your sensitivity, giving you greater clarity, and allowing you to make higher quality decisions.

If you want to geek out a bit, it does this by allowing you to be more aware of what is called the sensate happenings of your body — its internal workings — triggering heightened interoception.

The weird thing about NSDR is that you feel as though you’re no longer conscious, but you’re entirely awake. And a 45 minute practice has been found to be just as restful as 3 hours of sleep.

Ready to get started?

The good news is that practicing NSDR is an uncomplicated process. You can take a yoga nidra class at your local yoga studio or find a NSDR session on the Internet. Or you can do it at home by yourself by following these steps and using the recording below:  

  1. Find a comfortable, quiet space where you not only feel safe, but where you can lie down undisturbed. Put a Do Not Disturb sign on the door if necessary!
  2. Make sure you’re warm. Throw on those fuzzy socks that you love, and your coziest sweatsuit.
  3. Turn on AIRPLANE MODE. No one wants to be called by their mom while their trying to optimize their grey matter.
  4. Coocon yourself! Use all the blankets, pillows, bolsters and props you need to get yourself comfortable, so that you can just rest easily, and enjoy the practice. I find a yoga mat layered with a blanket under my body, a bolster under my knees, and a folded pillow under my head feels wonderful. I also love having a cozy blanket draped over my body, so that when my body cools down from being still, I stay warm! You’re welcome to do this in bed, if you’d like, but you may choose to do it on the floor, or on a yoga mat, so you mind doesn’t think you’re setting up to fall asleep!
  5. Don’t worry about falling asleep. If you DO fall asleep and can help it, you could get up from the practice, so to train yourself to not fall asleep. If you fall asleep, it’s probably a sign that you needed a little extra zzz, and there’s nothin’ wrong with a little extra cozy nap!
  6. From here, play the guided track, which will invite you to draw awareness to various parts of your physical body. You’ll gradually draw awareness to them, and relax them. You’ll find yourself in this über relaxed state between being awake and sleeping, which can feel a lot like being under anesthesia.

This practice of NSDR is not sexy, but it is something you can do daily that will improve your cognitive function, brain plasticity, sleep, and vagal tone. And above all, it will just make you feel better. And I think feeling better is something we ALL desire!

Image credits: Tim Foster.

About the Author: Laura Araujo

Laura Araujo is the co-founder of The MAPS Institute, a classically trained vocalist, and a practitioner of Ashtanga, classic Indian yoga. She is the creator of the MAPS (Mindfulness, Activation, Purpose, and Surrender) philosophy and is in continual pursuit of helping her students find balance amid the chaos around and within them.

 



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  • What a fascinating read! And on a topic that hits very close to home for me. I will certainly be experimenting with this practice over the weekend!

  • The women in my family have always had a practice of ’40 winks’ as we call it. We use it when everything gets overwhelming, when we’re tired, or when we just need some mental space. It’s just a short amount of time, with your eyes closed in a quiet room, not really sleeping but not really awake either – and it sounds exactly like this! How fun to learn the science behind something passed down from my grandma!

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