Victoria Woodhall has always struggled with sleep. Power naps were something that other people had. But the new Sensate relaxation device changed everything
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Are you one of those people who can fall asleep at the drop of a hat? Can you slot in a power nap whenever you feel like it? Until a few weeks ago, I’d have said that we could never be friends. I’m a chronic troubled sleeper and have been since my teens and I’ve tried everything from CBD sleep drops to magnesium baths, melatonin and even prescription medication. I hated (envied) power nappers with a passion.
Now though, I’m joining the club thanks to a brilliant new gadget that I call the ‘power nap pebble’. The Sensate is a cordless wearable that emits a low sound vibration, rather like a sonic toothbrush or a sub-woofer. It’s a very clever nervous system hack that transforms a lie down into deep rest. You place it on your breastbone, pair it with the Sensate app, select a programme of relaxing music – anything from 10 to 30 minutes – and sink back as the pebble pulses and vibrates in time to your chosen track. It’s so soothing that I drift off almost instantly into that elusive but delicious ‘hypnagogic’ state between sleep and wakefulness.
Power napping is a life skill and it’s recommended by pretty much every sleep expert. “The optimum power nap is 20 minutes long, says Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder of The Sleep School app. “It is usually the recommended type of nap for an immediate boost of energy and alertness, allowing you to get up easily and back to work right away," he tells me. "Any more, and you will wake up during the deep slow-wave-sleep, in a groggy state and even sleepier than before.”
If you want a longer daytime nap, by the way, you need to give yourself 90 minutes to go through an entire sleep cycle, he advises. This is more suitable if you want to pay off your sleep debt from a bad night.
Pre-Sensate, it would have taken me the entire 20 minutes just to stop fidgeting and ruminating; napping was always for those annoying 'other' people who probably slept well at night too. Gah!
I’m not the only one in on the Senate secret. Columnist and podcaster Nicola Bonn told me it was helping her with anxiety and panic attacks. Get The Gloss co-founder Sarah Vine has also bought one after borrowing mine. As a yoga teacher, I’m using it on my students too to deepen their final relaxation (savasana) at the end of class. They love it.
How does the Sensate work?
I first came across the device four years ago when it was at the prototype stage. Its inventor, acupuncturist Stefan Chmelik who has worked works with the likes of Elle Macpherson at his practice in Harley Street, explained that it worked by toning the vagus nerve. The effect of this is to calm the nervous system. The Sensate had replaced his 45-year meditation practice, he said. Like any busy person, he was not averse to a shortcut.
What is the vagus nerve?
At the time, the vagus nerve wasn’t much known outside medical circles. Now, it’s being more widely talked about in the context of stress management. You might hear it mentioned in breathwork classes – deep breathing is another powerful way to soothe the vagus nerve.
It is the longest nerve in the body (vagus is related to the word vagabond, meaning wandering) and runs from the brainstem to the abdomen branching out into all the major organs sending signals between them and the brain. It’s a key player in regulating our stress response, explains Dr Magdalena Bak Maier, a neuroscientist and coach specialising in the mind-body connection.
“When the vagus nerve is activated and functioning well, it puts the brakes on the stress response, which is soothing. High vagal tone means a fast, robust response to stress,” she explains. It’s a bit like having toned muscles. “When we have low vagal tone, on the other hand, our vagus nerve is low on stress-busting power, so we stay in a state of fear or anxiety,” she says.
I think of my Sensate as going to the vagus ‘gym’ – not just for instant stress relief but to increase my stress resilience over time.
There are other activities that tone the vagus nerve, apart from sound vibrations and slow breathing. Singing – especially in a choir, where you are also bathed in the sound of others, or chanting and gargling do the job too. Yogic ujjayi breath (making an ocean or ‘Darth Vader’ sound in the back of the throat) and humming bee breath are vagal toning too. Why? Not just because they involve slowing down the breath but because, like the Senate, they also vibrate it. The vagus runs down the back of the throat so is easily accessed by vocal vibrations.
Chmelik told me that he’d been using vagal toning in his clinic for five years, alongside other therapies such as psychotherapy, nutrition therapy and physiotherapy, to treat all manner of conditions with a mind-body connection — migraines, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even obesity. It’s widely used in Scandinavia, where it’s called vibroacoustic therapy.
“The results have been so good, we’re now using it on all our patients. It has enabled us to speed up the recovery process in people with chronic complex issues such stress and anxiety, some of whom previously hadn’t responded to treatment.”
Doctors have explained to me over the years that insomnia is only ever a symptom, not a condition in itself. My inability to sleep or nap is actually an inability to let go of that high state of vigilance. It's anxiety. I very likely have what Dr Bak Maier describes as low vagal tone.
Now, if I need to catch up after a bad night's sleep or when I just need an energy boost to get through the afternoon, I lie down with the pebble on my breast bone and an eye mask or weighted eye pillow. It pulses, hums and thrums in time with the music and the sound seems to spread like liquid through my chest. This immersive experience cuts through my thoughts. Afterwards, I’m relaxed and alert, like I’ve plugged myself into a power bank. That foggy tiredness hangover is completely gone. I'm starting to break the pattern of not being able to let go. I have noticed my sleep at night is getting better too.
Does it really work or am I just imagining it? I recently spent three days hooked up to another wearable, a heart rate variability monitor. This is a stick-on device that measures stress levels minute-to-minute and can tell which branch of my nervous system was activated – the sympathetic 'fight or flight' response or the parasympathetic rest and recovery' mode. It showed unequivocally that during my pebble time, I reached relaxation mode.
What I like about the Sensate as a relaxation tool is that it’s non-verbal. Not everyone finds meditation apps that tell you to count your breath or watch your thoughts passing like clouds helpful. In fact, they can make you feel more anxious. But this is easy, discreet and blends the best of ancient sound healing and modern technology.
We're appreciating more now how recovery is an essential part of life. If rest is eluding you, the Sensate is definitely worth the investment.