11 Jul 2013
Sleepless nights are the worst.
Well, there are probably worse things. But when you’re in the middle of terrible night one of the main thoughts that just keeps on coming is that here and now sucks.
I’ve had quite a few sleep problems before. In the most part, self inflicted by staying wired to my wired machines too late. Some of my propensity comes from harbouring thoughts that I’ve spent the day avoiding - that’s true of all of us, to some extent, but I think we each have a threshold of mental itchiness that we can resist before we start scratching.
It only takes one of those thoughts for a mind build on associative memory to pull up everything else filed away as ‘negative emotions’. A thought like an embarrassing incident or a letting a person down. Worst of all a memory of hurting a person, necessary or no.
Once of those little blighters has taken hold all of its friends come with it. “Oh, we’re thinking about the bad stuff now are we? Cool! Here’s a memory of getting assaulted / being bullied / you having bullied someone.” Avoiding one nasty memory by trying to repress it causes another to rear its head, but it also does something to that thought or memory too: it reinforces it as something negative in your mind, something dark and to be avoided. This label, in turn, can come to distort the details of the memory itself. Why would you have repressed it when it wasn’t that bad in the first place?
Lying there in the dark with little sensory stimulation, with ‘only’ your own head to feel free within, often makes me feel like I’m trapped and forced to face the darkest corners of my head, at the time when I’m most worn out and unable to handle it. On the worst of nights it feels like the dark nights are the only time I get to see how I really am, and that during the day it’s a bunch of delusions keeping me from feeling quite so glum. After all, the only difference is the availability of world around me. The constant between waking and sleeping hours is me. The feeling that this is in some way the true world, the real one, can give the judgments made about memories and thoughts a sense of authority that survives the touch of daylight.
There are ways of getting around it, both physical and mental.
On the simpler physical front there are the obvious: waking up at a decent time, keeping a consistent sleeping pattern, exercising, not eating too late, not using screens, forming a ritual, only using bed for sleep, re-approaching bed after leaving it for fifteen minutes. I’ve found all of these to work pretty well (said without any form of rigorous testing with respect to those variables).
On the mental (a front that isn’t necessarily that divided from the physical) there are some trickier things to implement. Mindfulness throughout the day helps me by letting me think those thoughts that I might repress and address and accept them for what they are, with as little judgment as possible. Spending all day being constantly busy means that we can often be physically exhausted, falling into bed only for our brains to then present to us all of the mental workload we’d been putting off but feel an emotional responsibility to address: thoughts about whether we’re happy in a relationship, where our lives are going, whether you should have given change to that homeless guy.
Sleep is such a very precious part of well-being. Dreaming can be a wonderful experience, and always interesting to play amateur psych with. I hope that you’re reading this with a good night’s sleep ahead of you, but if you’re lying there unable to rest, remember: you are most certainly not the only one.
J at 03:29