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The Scientific and Monastic Practice of Sleep Restriction

According to Saint John Chrysostom, “animals recognize sufficiency as a limit with respect to food and water and will not go beyond what they need even if innumerable persons try to force them on to excess” (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 58 on Matthew). He likewise remarks that “nothing is so conducive to enjoyment and health as to be hungry and thirsty when one sits down to eat, and to identify being full with the simple necessity for food, never overstepping the limits of this, nor imposing an overwhelming load on the body (Saint John Chrysostom, No one can harm the person who does not harm himself). Examples from nature and from daily life indicate that limits and restrictions can be good for our health. Could these examples offer us some help with the problem of insomnia?

In fact, they are not so far removed from the seemingly counter-intuitive suggestion offered by modern behaviorists: for better sleep, it is helpful to remain less time in bed trying to sleep, not more.  Now, we’ve all experienced nights when we could do nothing but toss and turn in bed, leaving us wearier from the unwanted exercise. While such experiences are unpleasant, for most of us they are infrequent. Unfortunately, the insomniac encounters such difficulties more often than not in trying to get a good night’s sleep. The response of scientific literature is: “stop fighting, give up, and get out of bed.” In other words, if you aren’t able to sleep within the first twenty minutes of retiring for bed, don’t continue to lie in bed, struggling to sleep.

Alfonso Marino describes this in terms of sleep restriction. He writes, “Sleep restriction limits the amount of time spent in bed to actual sleep time. Individuals with insomnia tend to spend excessive amounts of time in bed in an attempt to make up for a sleepless night. Sleep restriction incorporates a formula for calculating sleep efficiency. Sleep efficiency is calculated by dividing total sleep time by total time in bed and multiplying the ration by 100. The goal with sleep restriction is to increase an individual’s sleep efficiency to above 85%.”

Such a calculation may be a valuable tool in determining sleep efficiency and eliminating one of the inhibitors to better sleep: too much time spent in bed without sleep. This is analogous to a person who wants to lose weight and is told by a doctor to write down each and every food and drink item that is consumed during a given day is often surprised to find the quantity and quality of consumption. Each of us has a personal self-narrative to which we tend to adhere unless something or someone shatters that very often false self-conception.

Sleep restriction also serves to counter another factor in insomnia-frustration. When we’re unable to sleep and remain tossing and turning, our level of frustration grows which makes it more difficult to sleep. When you recognize and accept that sleep will be difficult on this particular night (without catastrophizing) and arise from bed, you are making a healthy choice.

In therapeutic settings, Marino notes that “at the 6 month follow-up point, approximately 66% of treatment groups members found sleep restriction somewhat helpful and 34% found it as very helpful. By the end of the study, no participants felt that sleep restriction was not helpful.” In the final analysis, sleep restriction seeks to curb behavior that is not beneficial (staying in bed without sleep) in order to maximize the benefit of fruitful behavior (actual time spent sleeping in bed). Because we can become creatures of habit, we need to take time to reflect upon our behavioral patterns and consider change.

vigillampAdmittedly, the fathers spoke far more about vigil and trying to stay awake than they did about insomnia and trying to fall asleep. They would deny themselves physical food and drink, sleep for the body, and other earthly pleasures for the sake of spiritual nourishment, rest for the soul and heavenly delight in Christ. Some, like Abba Arsenios, would spend the entire night in vigil and then when dawn came, call out to sleep and sleep would come (Gerontikon, PG 65.88C). Others, like Abbas Poimen, would point out that while they couldn’t do without food, clothing, and sleep, they could in part cut down on the amount needed (Gerontikon, PG 65.368). And they found that this restriction in sleep, in food, and in clothing brought a light into their heart through which they could more clearly see Christ. Sleep restriction has been practiced by monks for millennia. When they cannot sleep, they pray, they give glory to God, they repent, and they seek the face of Christ. They do not remain inactive in their beds, but use their time wisely, redeeming the time. And when they do finally retire for rest, sleep comes. And it is peaceful and sweet.

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

3911LgThere is something truly divine about the way our Lord took the most common and simple ingredients of life and transformed them into lenses through which Christians could see the world and their role in it anew. Salt was already an integral part of world civilization whose value has been acknowledged throughout the history of mankind. Without salt, there could be no ritual meal to seal a covenant. Without salt, no savory sacrifices among ancient peoples could be made to bring propitiation for sins. Without salt, the great caravan routes in the East would not have been trodden. Without salt, the health of people and animals would be compromised. Without salt, food can become tasteless and even worse spoiled before it can be consumed.

Among all these rich associations surrounding this most essential mineral, the Lord Christ especially focuses upon salt as a seasoning and a preservative in comparing His disciples to it. According to Origen, “the rest of humanity can be conceived of as the earth, and believers are the salt, because the earth is preserved because of their belief” (Commentary on Saint John, Book 6, chapter 38). The faith of the Christian should enhance whatever is good and nourishing in the world and preserve it by infusing it with the divine life that Christ brought to this world. That inward faith is to be expressed outwardly through loving compassion, selfless concern for others, and all the virtues encompassed by the Beatitudes. As Saint John Chrysostom remarked, “one should be useful not only to oneself, but also to many others. Christ declared this plainly when He called us salt… Again salt is not an astringent to itself, but braces up those parts of the body which have been wounded and prevents them from decomposing and perishing” (Homily on those who had not attended the assembly).

To be the salt of the earth, then, is to be a healing presence, a preserving presence, and a seasoning presence among our brothers and sisters, whom ever they may be. Not that we are saviors. There is only one Savior. Again Saint John Chrysostom makes this clear when he wrote about the Apostles as the salt of the earth: “Did they restore the decayed? By no means, for it is not possible to do any good to that which is already spoiled by sprinkling salt on it. Rather, they salted that which had already been restored, committed to their charge, and freed from that ill savor, so that those souls might maintain and preserve the freshness that they had received from the Lord. To be set free from the rottenness of sins was the good work of Christ, but to no longer return to it again was the purpose of the apostles’ diligence and travail” (Homily 15 on Matthew).

The sacred task of preserving Christ’s salvific work requires not only diligence and travail, but also watchfulness and vigilance as Saint Cyprian of Carthage notes in his comments on this Gospel passage. The value of salt is in its use where it is needed and when it is needed. Thus, Saint Cyprian writes, “Persecution and direct attacks are not the only sources of fear that can overwhelm and cast down the servants of God. In fact, caution is easier where danger is obvious, and the mind is prepared in advance for the struggle. The enemy is more to be feared and to be guarded against, when he creeps on us secretly; when, deceiving by the appearance of peace, he steals forward by hidden approaches… And so we are to foresee dangers lest we be caught in the nets of death on account of our lack of caution, that we may possess the immortality that we have received. But how can we possess immortality, unless we keep those commands of Christ whereby death is driven out and overcome, when He Himself warns us, and says, ‘If you will enter into life, keep the commandments?’ (Matthew 19:17)… Finally, these persons He calls strong and steadfast; these He declares to be founded in robust security upon the rock, established with immoveable and unshaken firmness, in opposition to all the tempests and hurricanes of the world” (On the Unity of the Church). So that one’s spiritual saltiness might not lose its savor, it is necessary to be aware not only of obvious and hidden temptations and dangers, but also to keep in mind the sure way to overcome them through obedience to Christ and His teachings.

To become indeed the Salt of the Earth, we must become people of faith and people of action. As Christ “came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion” (Mark 6:34), we need to see where we can enhance the lives of others and preserve them in goodness. Through diligence and travail, through watchfulness and vigilance, we are to preserve the sacred deposit of Faith in our hearts. Ultimately, the possibility of becoming the salt of the earth is given to us through Christ’s victory over sin and death through His Cross and Resurrection. Through the Pascal Victory may we truly become as salt, white as snow with respect to sin and as translucent as glass with respect to the grace of God, preserving and seasoning the earth.

Sleep and the Senses

Saint Augustine once wrote, “Suggestion takes place either by means of memory, or by means of the bodily senses, when we see, or hear, or smell, or taste, or touch anything” (Sermon on the Mount, 1, 12). In other words, as sentient beings, we are affected by the external stimuli we encounter in daily life. Our five senses are continually provided an array of stimuli that call for a response and make suggestions for action. At the time for sleep, it is important to regulate and reduce such stimuli for the sake of the bodily inactivity that characterizes sleep. Some such stimuli like television or radio are easy to reduce in the bedroom by removing them altogether. Other stimuli such as associations our mind makes with work, family life, or relationships are more difficult to control or reduce, especially during the time set aside for sleep.

Perhaps we don’t even think about it, but we act upon these associations all the time. When we want to relax, we choose a favorite book, a television program, or watch a sunset because in the past, these things have been associated with feelings that lead to relaxation. The same principle applies to associations that are stressful or anxiety producing.

In her work, “A Comparison of Three Cognitive Behavioral Treatments for Insomnia: Paradoxical Intention, Coping Imagery and Sleep Information,” Lynn Petras Gould notes the importance of stimuli reduction for insomniacs. “Stimulus control therapy is based upon the premise that insomniacs frequently engage in activities incompatible with sleep prior to bedtime, preventing the establishment of appropriate discriminative stimuli for sleep. The therapy seeks to reduce sleep-incompatible behaviors, thus permitting bedtime stimuli to become associated with the behavior of falling asleep.”

Alfonso Marino makes a similar point when he writes, “Sometimes problems arise when people engage in activities at bedtime that are incompatible with falling asleep. For example, they use their bedrooms for reading, talking on the phone, watching television, snacking, listening to music, paying the bills, planning the next day’s events or worrying. The bottom line is that the bed and bedtime become cues for arousal rather than sleep.”

Many domestic arguments take place in the bedroom which then can become associated with anxiety or sorrow. Stimulus reduction therapy seeks to reduce both stimuli and cognitive associations that arouse rather than relax. Therefore, it’s important to keep activity in this place and at this time to a minimum.

William Simpson Sampson notes in his doctoral dissertation, “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia in a Primary Care Setting,” that “these procedures are based on classical conditioning principles and seek to increase the strength of the bed as a conditioned stimulus by pairing it with sleep as an unconditioned response to the unconditioned stimulus of drowsiness until sleep becomes a conditioned response to reclining in bed. By avoiding pairing the bedroom with any other unconditioned stimuli the technique increases the discriminative power of the bed as a cue for sleep and not for any incompatible behaviors.”

Orthodox spirituality recognizes the importance of stimulus control and cognitive associations. This is most clearly demonstrated by the use of beeswax candles, oil lamps, incense, icons, the human voice, and human movement during prayer. All of these stimuli are sacred suggestions offered to all the senses to help Christians worship God with all their strength and all their soul. Their presence is meant to put the Christian in the proper state of mind for prayerful worship as well as to help the Christian avoid the distractions by incompatible stimuli present during the times set aside for prayer during the day.

Sleep stimuli and associations are just as important when it is time to get proper rest. As the sacred writer of Ecclesiastes notes, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

“Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Emotions are of great importance in our lives as human beings and as Christians. Carl Jung once observed, “Emotion is the moment when steel meets flint and a spark is struck forth, for emotion is the chief source of consciousness. There is no change from darkness to light or from inertia to movement without emotion.” In general, emotions motivate us, organize our world, and help us to adapt to changing situations. And it is significant that the Beatitudes conclude with the brightest and most blessed of human emotions, a rejoicing and gladness that are strikingly and peculiarly Christian, for they are intimately related to the person and work of Christ. Yes, there is suffering in life. We know full well that “in the world we have tribulation: but we are of good cheer, for Christ has overcome the world” (John 16:33) and we have put on Christ, cheerfully, joyfully, and with exceeding gladness. There is no room for puritanical gloom and dank pessimism in the Christian walk, for the virtues clothe the Christian in a joy, gladness, and optimism that the world cannot take away from us. Much research in psychology bolsters the finding that positive emotional feelings enhance empathy and altruism. Put in Christian parlance, rejoicing and gladness makes it easy to feel compassion and to love. How fitting that the Beatitudes are concluded with this final commandment of joy!

christ_the_true_vine_icon_athens_16th_centurySaint Paul likewise teaches Christians to rejoice using the very same imperative of other commandments when he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” He doesn’t say in good times rejoice or when others affirm Christianity, rejoice. Rather, he specifies its unconditional nature by saying “Rejoice always.” Saint John Chrysostom comments on this Pauline teaching as follows: “I know indeed that to many this saying seems impossible. ‘For how is it possible,’ one may say, ‘that someone who is only human can continually rejoice? To rejoice is not difficult, but to rejoice continually seems impossible to me.’ After all, there are many reasons for sadness that surround us on all sides. A man has lost either a son, or a wife, or a beloved friend, more necessary to him than all kindred; or he has to sustain the loss of wealth; or he has fallen into sickness; or he has to bear some other change of fortune; or to grieve for contemptuous treatment which he did not deserve; or famine, or pestilence, or some intolerable exaction, or circumstances in his family trouble him. Indeed, there is no saying how many circumstances of a public or private nature tend to cause us grief. How then, he may say, is it possible to “Rejoice always?” In fact, it is possible! …He who rejoices ‘in the Lord’ cannot be deprived of that delight by any thing that may happen. For all other things in which we rejoice are mutable and changeable, and subject to variation. And not only does this grievous circumstance attend them, but moreover while they remain they do not afford us a pleasure sufficient to repel and veil the sadness that comes upon us from other quarters. But the fear of God contains both these requisites. It is steadfast and immoveable, and sheds so much gladness that we don’t feel the blow of other evils. For the man who fears God as he should, and trusts in Him, gathers from the very root of pleasure, and has possession of the whole fountain of cheerfulness. And as a spark falling upon a wide ocean quickly disappears, so whatever events happen to the man who fears God, these, falling as it were upon an immense ocean of joy, are quenched and destroyed!” It is the sense of God’s presence, God’s victorious and loving presence, in every situation that keeps a window always open for the light of grace to shine in and the breeze of the Spirit to refresh, thus transforming a barren landscape into a paradise in which God walks in the cool of the evening. When God is included in one’s “cognitive appraisal of stimulus or a situation,” a contemporary description of the source of emotional reactions, then rejoicing and being exceedingly glad does indeed become possible and imperative.

And although there is much that can cause great sorrow in this world, although there is much that can make people justifiably pessimistic, nevertheless, Christians rejoice. Nevertheless, Christians are optimists, not because they are dreamy idealists, but because they know Christ, because they’ve tasted Christ, and they have seen that through Him their lives have been transformed. Saint Nikolai of Zycha wrote, “I would not be able to call myself a Christian if I were not an optimist. And if I called myself a Christian and were not optimistic, I would not be a sincere Christian. And all of you who call yourselves Christians but are not optimists do so in vain. Christianity is the mighty fortress of optimism. Christianity is founded on faith, hope, and love, because only those three, faith, hope, and love, save… Let us be optimistic as Christians, because even the most despairing of us have found comfort therein… Let us think optimistically, because only optimistic thought reaches God. Let our emotions be optimistic, because optimism is the remedy for sorrow and the fount of true and eternal joy. Let us be optimistic with our work, for good works are woven into the work of God and are preserved eternally along with the work of God” (Homilies on Optimism and Pessimism).

Optimism, joy, and rejoicing in the midst of suffering can aptly describe the Saints throughout history. Through this beatitude, this approach to life is offered to all Christians as a precious inheritance. Elder Porphyrios truly lived this commandment and enjoyed living it fully. He used to say, “Whoever lives Christ becomes one with Him and with His Church. He has a zest for living. His life is different from the lives of other people. It is joy. It is light. It is rejoicing. It is resurrection. It is the life of the Church, the life of the Gospel, the Kingdom of God.” Such a person has Christ in his mind, in his heart, and in all of his being. And in the words of the Elder, “Christ is life, the fountain of life, the fountain of joy, the fountain of true light.” To rejoice and be exceedingly glad is truly possible when we find Christ, when we become like Christ, and when Christ is the primary focus of our lives. Then, we truly rejoice and are glad, not only because great is our reward in heaven, but because great is our reward on earth in the presence of our heavenly Savior.

The Value of Discipline: Some Behavioral Suggestions for Insomnia

The behavioral treatment options available to those suffering from insomnia are quite practical and stunningly simple. Yet, very often many of life’s solutions are practical and simple. We need to do something(s) different. What complicates matters for us are our own predilections, preferences, and idiosyncracies. We have a divided will that makes it difficult to choose certain courses of action that may restrict us, but can perhaps resolve an even more troubling situation. The notion of cutting off the will for the sake of an ultimate goal, familiar in the monastic milieu, has its place in many aspects of life as well as in the daily, or nightly, challenges we may face.

Abba Poimen once said, “A person’s will forms the stony resistance of a bronze wall between him and God. If the person abandons it, he can say, ‘In my God I leapt over a wall’” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, PG 65.332). In like manner, Abba Sisoe used to say, “Cast your will behind you and become carefree and find rest” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, PG 65.405). Perhaps, in the case of insomnia, one needs to set aside one’s desire to just fall asleep naturally like everyone else and stick to some challenging behavioral changes that will make sleep more likely. Perhaps then, one can become carefree and find some rest.

Although sleep is neither an automatic, autonomous process nor a voluntary action, it is nevertheless a behavior. And as such, researchers have determined that it “is susceptible to conditioning processes which are governed by environmental and temporal stimuli. When these stimulus conditions lose their association to sleep the foundation for chronic insomnia begins to take form.” Bedroom and bedtime should be so associated with sleep that they come to mean sleep-room and sleep-time. Unfortunately in insomnia, instead of making us drowsy and ready for a nap, the exact opposite associations get formed around the bedroom and bedtime, which become the frustration-room and frustration-time, making falling asleep that much more difficult.

Alfonso Morin notes, “In addition to work on dysfunctional cognitions, behavioral treatment components involve the alterations of temporal, contextual and behavioral factors. The intention is to ensure that the timing of sleep is set to circadian principles (temporal), in an environment that is conducive to sleep (contextual), while maladaptive sleep habits (behavioral) are being modified (Morin 1993).” The behavioral therapists recommend that those suffering from insomnia do the following: 1) establish and maintain a standard time for sleep such as 12:00 a.m. – 6:00 a.m. 2) establish a standard wake-up time, 3) ensure that sleep time occurs in line with one’s own need for rest, 4) rise from the bed when unable to sleep, 5) eliminate all other activities and/or distractions from the sleep space, and 6) maintain the same amount of time in bed each night. The value of this disciplined regimen is well documented in scientific research and can provide for the re-establishment of one’s natural circadian rhythm, which assists in the sleep process.

Discipline, temperance, and abstinence are also basic elements of Christian asceticism. Saint Gregory of Nyssa once wrote, “Temperance ‘is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her;’ and they sailed across the swelling billows of existence upon this tree of life, as upon a skiff; and anchored in the haven of the will of God; enviable now after so fair a voyage, they rest their souls in that sunny cloudless calm. They now ride safe themselves at the anchor of a good hope, far out of reach of the tumult of the billows; and for others who will follow they radiate the splendor of their lives as beacon-fires on some high watch-tower” (On Virginity, 24). Discipline, temperance, and abstinence are valuable because of where they lead. When practiced for the sake of overcoming insomnia, they can lead to more regular sleep, certainly something to be desired. But when practiced for the sake of Christ, they can lead to something far greater, “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

Blessed Are You When Men Shall Revile You and Persecute You and Say All Manner of Evil Against You Falsely, For My Sake. Rejoice and Be Exceeding Glad, For Great is Your Reward in Heaven

Our Lord’s words are “powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow,” for the Word and Son of God is “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). He knows that listeners to His voice desire more than to marvel at the blessed poor in spirit, meek, merciful, and peacemakers. They want to become what they admire and the Lord already begins to accomplish that transformation by shifting from speaking about them in the third person to speaking to you in the second and to the blessedness that is yours if you follow Him, swimming upstream in rapids cascading down in the direction of vice, and in the process you find that others revile you, others persecute you, and others slander you for the Lord’s sake, and yet you rejoice and are exceedingly glad!

Feeling persecuted, reviled, and slandered in a dark and dangerous world where no one can be trusted is not a healthy state when considered apart from Christ. In fact, it could serve as an apt description of a paranoid personality disorder. Those suffering with such a disorder fear that they are not capable of handling threatening situations on their own and believe that trust cannot be given to anyone. They have very little self-efficacy and ill-boding over many things. Not so, for the Christian Christ calls us to become. Christians who face reviling and persecution for His sake also are able, like Saint Paul, to confess: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phillipians 4:13), for “in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us” (Romans 8:37). They trust in the Lord with all their heart and become “like Mount Zion, which cannot be removed but abideth forever” (Psalm 125:1). And if a limited range of choices and narrowed freedom of inner movement characterize those who suffer from psychopathology, those who are persecuted for righteousness on the contrary feel more freedom, as Saint Athanasius observes when he writes, “the more the enemies hem us in, let us be all the more at liberty; although they revile us, let us come together” ( Letter 11).

No stranger to persecution and revilement himself, Saint Nikolai of Zicha wrote these words to a suffering woman, “According to Christ’s teaching—blessed are you when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake—those who are put to shame and slandered for Christ’s sake will rejoice and be glad in the homeland of angels, along with these people, happy are those who trust their Savior for they shall be saved, those who burn with love toward the Creator and His creatures, for they will be crowned with unfading glory, those who sacrifice their earthly life, for they shall obtain life in heaven. This is the true and unceasing happiness which our Lord has revealed and declared to mankind. For this kind of happiness, kings have sacrificed their crowns, the rich men their riches, martyrs their lives—as easily as the trees cast away their leaves in the fall” (Letter 89 “To An Unfortunate Woman Who Asks, ‘Why Does the Gospel Not Talk About Happiness?”).

How do Christians manage such heroic and free acts with the ease of trees shedding their leaves? How can they rejoice and be glad in situations that would leave most people, even the most psychologically healthy, with only the most negative options from among which to choose, such as shuddering at such situations, being afraid, becoming angry, or becoming despondent? The answer is that they have become like Christ, the sole purpose of the Beatitudes and incarnation of God the Word. They “have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16) and look at the world in a radically different way through the Light of God that illumines and warms all of creation. Saint John Chrysostom in his second Eutropian homily— delivered after Eutropius had fled authorities and left the sanctuary offered by the Church—said to the Christians present, “I saw the swords and I meditated on Heaven; I expected death, and I thought about the resurrection; I beheld the sufferings of this lower world, and I took account of the heavenly prizes; I observed the devices of the enemy, and I meditated on the heavenly crown: for the occasion of the contest was sufficient for encouragement and consolation. True, I was being forcibly dragged away, but I suffered no insult from the act; for there is only one real insult, namely sin: and should the whole world insult you, yet if you do not insult yourself you are not insulted. The only real betrayal is the betrayal of the conscience: do not betray your own conscience, and no one can betray you.”

Christians always have an additional option. They can always rejoice and be exceedingly glad, because they can always turn their minds from earth to heaven, from death to life, from man to God. This is the secret of the martyrs and of all Christians truly worthy of that most honorable and majestic name. Again, Saint Nicholai of Zycha in his Prayers by the Lake, once wrote, “When your mortal brothers hear about your sufferings they consider them unbelievable and unbearable, for they can really imagine themselves only in your suffering and not in your love, in the meaning of your sufferings. Oh, if they could only imagine themselves in your love also! All your sufferings would seem like nothing to them, just as they seemed to you. Just as the cold rain and the howling of the wind seem like nothing to a mother as she hurries home to her child. To one who has a goal greater than the world, the world can do nothing. One who hurries to a home wider than space, space cannot contain. One who has a love more precious than temporal creations, can neither be impeded nor trampled by time. Across all rugged terrain and through all stormy tempests Love leads His beloved ones and draws them to Himself.” And so, it should come as no surprise at all that “they rejoice and are exceedingly glad, for great is their reward in heaven,” a reward they already experience in the depths of their humble, meek, merciful, pure, and peaceful hearts that have become living tabernacles of the Son of God.

Insomnia, Sleep Deprivation, and Maintaining Realistic Thoughts

When we experience a certain difficult period in our lives, we have a tendency to focus all of our energy on the problem and its consequences. This is true with the issue of insomnia as well. Even when we convince ourselves that we are instead focusing on a solution, it is always in the context of perceiving it as an obstacle or a problem. This negative focus may lead us to exaggerate our plight, turning a difficult situation into a daily catastrophe that leaves us paralyzed and even further weakened. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is not only unhelpful for coping in daily life, but even restricts our ability to recognize healthy solutions.

When we recognize this strain of thought, it is wise to take a step back and separate myth from fact. In the study, “A Comparison of 3 Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Treatments for Insomnia,” author Lynn Petras Gould notes, “The idea that total lack of sleep, even for a long period of time, destroys daytime job or task performance is a myth. Only the most sensitive of tests can detect lapses in performance of sleep-deprived people. Drowsiness does cause “lapses” or “micro sleeps” which result in momentary impairments in performance. However these microsleeps are largely controlled or prevented in situations where the task is brief or the person is motivated to do well. Performance is also improved when the sleep-deprived person can control the rate at which he/she works. There may be some difficulty in performing well on tasks involving memory, but it is short-term memory that is affected, while long-term memory continues to function well.”

This is indeed good news based on scientific studies that should serve to provide insomniacs with the necessary data to restrict catastrophizing and sets a limit to how negatively their situation can be interpreted. One may not feel at all perky after what seems to be a sleepless night, but one can still do valuable things for oneself and others. In her dissertation, Lynn Petras Gould studied the effects of total sleep deprivation as well as partial sleep deprivation. She was able to conclude from her studies that “The totally sleep-deprived person’s behavior returns to normal after a single night of recovery sleep. . . Even severe deprivation does not lead to great changes. If you are worried about hurting yourself by not sleeping, stop worrying.”

This is not intended to minimize the suffering experienced by insomniacs or even real neurological damage that long-term sleep deprivation can cause, but rather to moderate one’s view of the short-term suffering by contrasting insomnia to what is really at the extreme pole of the spectrum, total sleep deprivation. Saint John Chrysostom comments on the value of this perspective-taking when he writes, “Be then our sufferings what they may, let us look round on what is worse; for we shall find such, and thus shall we be thankful. And above all, let us give thanks for all things continually; for so, both these things will be eased, and we shall live to the glory of God, and obtain the promised good things” (Homily 8 on Colossians). Already mood can be improved if instead of ruminating on how bad one will feel or perform because of a difficult night, the struggler courageously decides to gives thanks for a little sleep, even if it was not enough, bringing to mind the suffering of those who have not slept at all.

In another commentary, Saint John Chrysostom writes, “There are two kinds of consolation, apparently opposed to one another, but yet contributing great strength… The one is when we say that persons have suffered much: for the soul is refreshed, when it has many witnesses of its own sufferings… The other is when we say, ‘You have suffered no great thing.’ The former, when the soul has been exhausted refreshes it, and helps it recover its breath: the latter, when it has become lazy and passive…, arouses the soul and sets it aright” (Homily 29 on Hebrews). What this patristic counsel suggests is again taking the via media of “checking, rebuking, and comforting with longsuffering and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2), avoiding exaggerations, one-sided explanations, and catastrophizing that only make a difficult situation far worse through the pernicious influence of a pessimistic imagination.

At the conclusion of her analysis of sleep deprivation, the author provides some helpful suggestions concerning appropriate behavior after a period of deprivation: “try to adapt your activities following a night of insomnia. Pace yourself; arrange your schedule along the lines of short periods of work punctuated by breaks. Remember that recovery from deprivation is rapid, so don’t worry that one bad night is going to ruin your whole week.” While those suffering from insomnia often experience more than one “bad night,” this advice is helpful in avoiding the negative thoughts that so often accompany insomnia. I am certain that you recognize by experience that worry does not resolve the problem and only leads away from trust in God Who, according to Saint Paul, “is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Perhaps, thanksgiving in all things as well as recognizing the suffering as real, yet being aware that there are even worse plights might be part of the way to bear the Cross when no other help comes.

The holy fathers understood the importance of putting life’s circumstances in proper perspective. Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica states it nicely in writing, “The Lord is the only One who bears our burdens and cares, all our infirmities and worries, both physical and of the spirit. He can bear everything, for He is Almighty. We must give over to Him all of our infirmities and those of our neighbors, through prayer. That is what prayer is for. We must be one with the Lord and we must not worry about tomorrow, for as He says ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’ (Matthew 6:34). This teaches us not to worry about tomorrow.” To rephrase Scripture, “Take therefore no thought for task-performance on the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the night is the sleepless hours thereof.”


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