The Physical and Emotional Toil of Sleeplessness and Praying About Sleep
The ancient Christian writer, Archaelaus, once referred to the pressure caused by lack of food and want of sleep as “two of the most trying things people have to endure” (The Acts of the Disputation with the Heresiarch Manes). Such trying things and pressure can wear us down and wear us out. Anyone with insomnia knows this. Proper rest is as important as proper nutrition and exercise in maintaining sound physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. When someone experiences chronic sleep disturbance or deprivation there is a concomitant physical, emotional, and spiritual toll.
The physical effects of insomnia are well-documented in scientific literature and include heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke (Ford & Kamerow, 1989; Knutsson, Akerstedt, Jonsson, & Orth-Gomer, 1986). Insomnia also has a deleterious effect on longevity. In a 1994 study, it was determined that more than half of insomnia sufferers reported two or more health issues within a year compared to normal sleepers (Stoller, 1994).
In addition to the physical issues that have been related to insomnia, there are emotional difficulties that arise as a result. Mood disorders including depression have been documented in those who’ve been deprived of sleep for an extended period of time. In her work, “A Transdiagnostic Approach to Treating Sleep Disturbance in Psychiatric Disorders,” Allison G. Harvey, writes, “Evidence from the sleep deprivation literature suggests that one of the strongest adverse effects of sleep deprivation is increased negative mood. For example, Dinges et al. (1997) restricted the sleep of healthy, non-patient participants to 5 hours per night for 1 week. The results indicated that mood progressively declined as sleep deprivation accumulated throughout the week.” Alfonso Marino writes in his dissertation entitled, “Treating Chronic Insomnia: A Cognitive-Behavioral Group Therapy Approach,” “One study demonstrated that individuals who had insomnia had a slightly higher risk of developing major depression compared to individuals without insomnia (Reynolds, 1989). The onset of depression was 40 times more likely to occur when insomnia was unresolved (Reynolds, 1989).”
History is replete with war stories of how enemy combatants have been purposely deprived of sleep in order to disorient and confuse captured soldiers in order to gain information. Because sleep has natural restorative qualities, involuntary sleep deprivation may lead to physical and emotional depletion that can potentially sap the vigor and joy out of spiritual endeavors. At this point, the physical and emotional problem also becomes a spiritual one.
The holy fathers understood full well the importance of restorative sleep for the health of body and mind. There are even a number of supplicatory prayers for “a relaxing sleep, a nourishing sleep, a somatic sleep unto robustness of soul and body,” which indicates that they understood the physical and psychological consequences of sleeplessness. In The Book of Needs, there is a prayer that brings to mind images from 4 Baruch that recounts how the Prophet Jeremiah sent Abimelech the Ethiopian with a basket of figs to the village of Achippa before the destruction of Jerusalem. In that account, during the heat of the day, Abimelech laid down under the shade of a tree upon his figs as upon a pillow and fell into a deep sleep, a comforting sleep, a sleep that took him away from the sorrows of the day, and transported him to the time of new beginnings after the desolation had taken place. In referring to this apocryphal story in prayers for those suffering from insomnia, the fathers are not asking for a sleep of sixty-six years, but asking God to provide an almost mythic sleep that more than covers one’s every need, a sleep like unto that of Abimelech, characterized by warmth and shade, nourishment and refreshment, carefree rejuvenation and hopeful consolation. For God, all things are possible, including a good night’s sleep. And we can and should ask for such a sleep.
In fact, the Compline service of the Orthodox Church, read daily in monasteries and pious homes throughout the world, includes prayers asking for a peaceful and even holy sleep. In the prayer of Antiochus the Monk, we ask, “And grant us, O Master, when we go to sleep, rest of body and soul,” with the word rest, ἀνάπαυσις, meaning a period of relaxation, a time of repose, a ceasing from activity, and a relief from trouble and anxiety, a word that underlines the physical and psychological boon of sleep and bane of sleeplessness. The prayer then continues, “And keep us from the murky slumbering of sin and every dark voluptuousness of night. Calm the violence of the passions, quench the fiery darts of the evil one, which are treacherously hurled against us. Subdue the rebellions of our flesh, and quell our every earthly and material thought.” That is to say, we ask God to keep far from us anything disturbing, anything arousing, anything that is contrary to His peace, His love, and His holiness, so that we will be refreshed and renewed. In like manner, Saint Macarius the Great also wrote a prayer before sleep, an excerpt of which notes, “And grant me, O Lord, to pass the sleep of this night in peace, that when I rise from my bed I may please Thy most holy Name all the days of my life and conquer my flesh and the fleshless foes that war with me.” A night in peace and a night of peace are what everyone troubled with insomnia desires, so that they might rise from bed and be worthy of the name of Christ. A full awareness of the problem need not cast us down. Rather it should move us to lift it up to God in prayer, awaiting help from the Lord Who gives rest “unto his people Israel, according to all that he promised” (1 Kings 8:56).