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Insomnia and the Role of Thoughts

March 18, 2014

In previous posts concerning insomnia, I’ve alluded to how our perceptions can color the effects of insomnia on daily life. Such perceptions may have all the marks of a common thought distortion known as catastrophizing  in which we play the fortune-teller who sees in her crystal ball only doom or gloom. Unfortunately, thoughts such as “I’ll never get any sleep” or “I just don’t see it getting any better” are rarely recognized as examples of catastrophizing thoughts, but are accepted as brutal facts and unfailing oracles that we see fulfilled day after day and, even worse, night after night. At least, so it seems.

In treating insomnia, such thoughts are the subject and focus of cognitive-behavioral interventions. According to Alfonso Marino, “The primary goal of cognitive therapy is to guide clients to re-evaluate the accuracy of their thinking about sleeplessness, its causal factors, and presumed consequences. The implementation of cognitive therapy for the treatment of insomnia is primarily based on cognitive restructuring techniques such as reappraisal, reattribution, and decatastrophizing (Beck & Weishaar, 1989).” In the process, we become a bit more flexible, learning that there is not just one deterministic reason why we don’t fall asleep, that there are other explanations for why we might feel bad other than a sleepless night, and that we can and do function well enough, even without the hallowed eight hours of sleep that is supposed to promise restful happiness. And that flexibility in itself brings some relaxation, which it in turn can bring sleep that much closer to the sleepless.

Such common-sense suggestions from the realistic vantage point of cognitive therapy would come easier than water flowing down a mountain stream to the holy fathers. After all, according to Saint Nikitas Stithatos, when it came to evaluating the thoughts, the fathers stood “like a masterful sovereign in the midst of its thoughts, judging them and separating the better from the worse” (On the Practice of the Virtues, 26) and were able to “see things clearly, hear them with understanding, and intuit them noetically” (On the Inner Nature of Things, 87). Although they did not use the terminology of reappraisal, reattribution, and decatastrophizing, their lucid minds radiant with the light of God’s wisdom could easily distinguish between half-truths, falsehoods, and reality as it truly is, not only in its fallen state, but also in its pristine condition as created by God. The ascetic fathers were eminently flexible and would certainly encourage the sleepless to be flexible as well, for in the arena of ascetic endeavor, venerable monks and nuns had learned how to bend the most rigid aspect of the human personality, the will, in the gentle direction of the perfect will of God. Certainly, they could bend their thoughts in a healthy direction as well.

In Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, the contemporary Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica writes, “A person who is trapped in the vicious cycle of chaotic thoughts, in the atmosphere of hades, or has only so much as touched it, feels the torments of hell. For example, we read the newspapers or take a walk in the streets, and afterwards we suddenly feel that something is not quite right in our souls; we feel an emptiness; we feel sadness. That is because by reading all sorts of things, our mind becomes distracted and the atmosphere of hades has free access to our minds. The Holy Fathers tell us to let our attention be on the Lord immediately upon waking, to let our thoughts be united with Him during the entire day, and to remember Him at every moment.”

Elder Thaddeus’ counsel not only demonstrates the wisdom of the fathers with a subtlety that captures the influence of thoughts even before we become aware of them or how they influence our mood, his counsel can also be understood as a practical application of reappraisal and reattribution. The problem is not simply reading the newspaper or walking in the street, but our mind turning away from Christ in what we read or in what we see and then imagining a world in which Christ is absent. Such a world would be a catastrophe for which catastrophizing thoughts would be completely normal. For the sake of reappraisal, reattribution, and decatastrophizing, the Elder offers a simple, yet effective recommendation: let the primary focus of our thoughts and our perceptions be the Lord and not everything else that impinges on the self. This works in whatever of life’s circumstances we may find ourselves, including insomnia.

The Elder’s advice is especially apt for catastrophizing thoughts. These thoughts beset us when we take the eyes of our heart off the Lord and focus them on ourselves and on our situation. We begin to lament the past, bemoan the present, and fear the future. This happens because God is not present in such thoughts. Elder Thaddeus writes about the greatest antidote to such thoughts. “The Lord is always waiting for us to unite ourselves with Him in love, but instead we drift further and further away from Him. We know that there can be no life without love. This means that there is no life without God, for God is Love. But His love is not according to the understanding of this world. The love that the world gives us consists of suffering and enslavement because the spirits of evil interfere with it. There is a little bit of love, but mostly it is just enslavement. The spirits of evil try to enslave us so that we become tied to certain people or things in order to prevent our hearts from going out to God, the Source of life and love. For they know that if our hearts unite with Him, then they cannot come close to us. The man who is given Grace and who is united with God’s love is also protected by this Divine love, and the evil spirits cannot come close to him. Love is the most powerful defense there is. There are no weapons and no power that can measure themselves against love. Everything is defeated before love.”

So, when we are beset on all sides by tribulations and suffering from insomnia, we are advised to reappraise our thoughts in the light of God’s love, to reattribute our problems to a wider array of factors including our spiritual life and to decatastrophize our situation through the realization of the presence of Christ victorious over every hell. The prism through which we are to view every passing struggle is the love of Christ that has overcome all these things (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). As I wrote in an earlier post , “There are some areas of our spiritual life that we may not allow Christ to enter. There are some areas that we may feel that we can handle it on our own. And although we might not confess such a stance, in the heat of the moment that is the stance we often live by. Of course, such a stance is both proud and selfish, stemming from a trust in self that is not warranted by experience. Although we cannot be tempted beyond what we are able to resist as long as the eyes of our souls are riveted on Christ, the moment we take them off Christ to look at the passion or the waves the passion causes, we will also undoubtedly sink like Saint Peter who could walk on water with his gaze fixed on Christ, but could only sink when his gaze was fixed elsewhere…” And so let us keep our eyes on Christ, let us allow that vision to transform our thoughts, so that we too may find peace in storms, rest in restlessness, and sleep in the Lord’s care.

From → Insomnia, Thoughts

  1. Father…this was one of the best on insomnia I have read so far. I had to print it out so I can later reflect on your words and the inspiring words of others you have shared.

    As I probably mentioned before, I find myself saying, “I guess this is how it will be for the rest of my life.” or “I will never be healed of this.”

    The words of Elder Thaddeus really struck a chord with me…these thoughts are devoid of Christ or the presence of Christ…and also how we can feel a sense of emptiness and sadness when our thoughts stray from Christ. How I have experienced this! I will take this opportunity of Lent to try to focus my thoughts more on Christ…or better yet…not to let them stray away from Christ. It is something I have been working on, with God’s grace. Elder Thaddeus’ book sounds like something I may like to read at some point.

    Thank you for these posts. May God bless you.

    • I am so glad, Theresa, that it struck a chord with you! It is striking how the presence or absence of Christ in one’s thoughts in a given situation so fundamentally colors that situation and our interpretation of it. It is testimony to His life-giving touch and light-giving presence. Yes, I think that being aware of that is perhaps the most important task that we have during the season of Lent.

      The book by Elder Thaddeus is indeed inspiring and spiritually profitable.

      Thanks again for your comments.

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