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Insomnia, Learned Helplessness, and the Helper of our Souls

February 26, 2014

When insomnia persists relentlessly over time and insomniacs are convinced that their sleep difficulties are “uncontrollable, unpredictable, and solely attributable to external causes” (Morin, 1993), a sinking feeling of helplessness may set in.  This, unfortunately, serves only to exacerbate the problem.  In his dissertation on the subject, Alfonso Morin describes this condition in terms of “learned helplessness,” which is a demoralized state of giving up and just suffering one’s fate, because one has “learned” that nothing has worked in the past.  This response to insomnia leads to viewing oneself in a negative light, to feeling increasingly anxious, and to having a mind racing with thoughts, all at the time when one would ideally be relaxing and falling into a gentle sleep. Saint Augustine gave an apt description of the calamitous thoughts about learned helplessness when he wrote,  “What a dreadful catastrophe is this: that the soul should be reduced to greater helplessness when it is seeking rest from its toil!” (Concerning the morals of the Catholic Church, 7).

Morin notes, “In order to cope with insomnia, people may develop maladaptive sleep habits, such as:  excessive time spent in bed, irregular sleep-wake schedules, and daytime napping” (Morin, 1993). All of these coping mechanisms are ultimately based on learned helplessness. The rationales go something like this: Since I’ve learned that I can’t do anything else, I might as well lie in bed. Since I’ve learned that I can’t sleep when I want to, I might as well sleep whenever I can. Morin points out that although these coping mechanisms may reduce the unpleasant feelings of sleepiness, in the long run they disrupt the normal sleep-wake rhythm making it even more difficult to experience a restorative and restful sleep. As we shall see in later posts, there are other options that can be tried other than reacting to learned helplessness.

christ_with_sheep_1024x1024_000f40e8-e672-4000-8125-a77694d48331_1024x1024The more attention the insomniac pays to the problem the worse the problem becomes.  Such thoughts as “I’m never going to get a good night’s sleep” become statements of fact rather than mere thoughts that don’t necessarily reflect reality. The key to not being at the mercy of these negative thoughts and that obsessive focus on the problem is to turn one’s attention to reliance and confidence in what the people of Alcoholics Anonymous deem a “Higher Power” and whom Christians confess as the Lord Jesus Christ who reveals Himself to us in the sacred Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church.  Once the helpless person turns his focus away from the problem and turns to God, his Helper, the negative effects of learned helplessness can dissipate and the soul can gain the courage to walk down other paths besides the maladaptive behaviors suggested by learned helplessness.  Saint John of Kronstadt in his My Life in Christ wrote, “We must trust God in all temptations, in all desolate conditions of the soul.  The Lord will deliver.” In that blessed trust, there is not only peace in storms and comfort in distress, but also possibilities that those who focus only on their helplessness will never see.

Elder Paisios taught his spiritual children to trust in God in all things, most especially in difficulties.  “If we do not ask for help from God, we will fall flat on our face.  Whereas, when we do ask for divine help, Christ will bind us with a rope to His Grace and will uphold us.  The wind may blow fiercely from all directions, but, because we are bound fast, we are not in danger.  But when man does not realize that it is Christ Who upholds him, he may unbind himself, in which case he will be buffeted left and right and tormented” (Spiritual Awakening). When we trust in God in spite of difficulties we free ourselves from the morass of our problems.  We become less anxious because we recognize the real solution to our problem lies in the providence and love of God.  Saint Isaac the Syrian once wrote, “The soul that loves God has its rest in God and in God alone. In all the paths that men walk in in the world, they do not attain peace until they draw nigh to hope in God” (Homily 56, 89).

The person wearied with insomnia may object that although these are beautiful passages, they don’t change the fundamental problem of not being able to fall asleep. That is true. But they do widen one’s horizons beyond the narrow confines of the individual wrestling alone and unsuccessfully with the monster of insomnia, they suggest possibilities where there were only restraints, and they connect the confessedly helpless with the one Helper who can overcome every ill and difficulty in ways we cannot even imagine. Psychologists have already demonstrated that with some effort learned helplessness can be unlearned. The good news is that for those with faith the effort required is even less through trust in the Helper and Creator of all that is.

  1. Another informative post Father. I really look forward to reading these.

    Unfortunately, I believe I fall into this category. I have resigned myself to the fact that this is the way it’s going to be…always. It’s been this way for 13 years and there has been no improvement at all.

    I do not spend excess time in bed and though I do try to rest my eyes during the day, I am not a big napper over all…I have trouble falling asleep during the day too! The irregular wake patterns would be more common for me.

    There is an overwhelming sense of despair from sleep deprivation that can hold you in its grasp, barely able to breathe…or to function at all. I do my best to trust in God and rely on Him through the day but many times, *why?* is often on my lips.


  2. Theresa,

    Thank you, once again, for your comments on this series. Trying to rely on God and trust in Him is always commendable and in fact salvific. Asking “why?” is also a natural human response, but I think a better, more healthful question to have on one’s lips is “how?” How I manage to function even with little sleep! How I am able to do things that I feel like I couldn’t! How God is present, not so much with outsiders looking in, but with us in the fiery furnace of our struggles! And how that presence turns the furnace into coolness and in the end we come through, victorious in His song.

    Fr. Alexis

    • Thank you Father for your words of wisdom. At the end of the day, I realize how God led me through everything I had to do that day and I am most grateful. It’s hard in the midst of it, or early morning to ask *how?* instead of *why?* I never thought to ask *how?* throughout the day….but something I will remember now.

  3. darrell permalink

    In this essay you quoted Saint John of Kronstadt; I think it is appropriate to inform you and your readers that the winter issue of Road to Emmaus (Vol. XV, No. 1) is about Saint John of Kronstadt. The inside cover is written:

    When you are praying alone, and your spirit is dejected, and you are wearied and oppressed by your loneliness, remember then, as always, that God the Trinity looks upon you with eyes brighter than the sun; also all the angels, your own Guardian Angel, and all the Saints of God. Truly they do; for they are all one in God, and where God is, there are they also. Where the sun is, thither also are directed all its rays. Try to understand what this means.
    Saint John of Kronstadt

    • Thank you for letting other readers know this and for sharing that beautiful passage from Saint John of Kronstadt

  4. Thank you for very insightful posts! Although I don’t suffer from insomnia (and hope I never shall!), I find the wisdom you share applicable to other spiritual struggles. It seems to me that abiding in Christ, as a branch in the vine, is crucial to any kind of spiritual life, when we will experience how “Christ will bind us with a rope to His Grace and will uphold us”.

    • Manie, thank you also for your comments! As I write these posts moving from one problem to another, I am struck by a certain similarity across a vast spectrum of difficulties between struggles on the one hand and interventions culled from psychology and the church fathers on the other. That’s extremely encouraging for all of us. Yes, abiding in Christ the true vine is always central.

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