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Insomnia and the Power of the Written Word

March 21, 2014

In treating insomnia, many cognitive behavioral therapists will suggest to people suffering with this condition that they begin keeping a diary concerning their daily sleep patterns, food-and-drink intake, exercise routines, as well as concerning how many sleep interruptions they encounter.  Often, this written record provides both clinician and sufferer with helpful information and new insights in terms of corrective measures that may be taken in order to alleviate sleeplessness. Alfonso Marino notes, “A clinician can at a glance gain an understanding of the nature, frequency, and intensity of insomnia of nightly variations in sleep schedules and of some common perpetuating factors (e.g., daytime naps).”

A recent article published by the Mayo Clinic suggests a sleep diary as a valuable tool in dealing with insomnia.  The article states, “To make effective changes, it’s important to understand sleep cycles and learn how beliefs, behaviors and outside factors can affect your sleep. To help decide how to best treat your insomnia, your sleep therapist may have you keep a detailed sleep diary for one to two weeks.” Especially important is the observation of how much time one spends in bed in contrast to how much time one actually sleeps in bed, so that one can calculate one’s sleep efficiency (percentage = [(time-sleeping-in-bed ) ÷ (total-time spent-in bed)] x 100) and have an objective gauge to measure one’s progress.

Of course, we would certainly prefer not to have to take recourse to writing down our experience surrounding insomnia, but the written word is important in all aspects of life.  Even with respect to the details of salvation history, Saint John Chrysostom once wrote, “It certainly would be appropriate for us not to require help from the written word at all in order to live purely with the grace of the Spirit inscribed in our hearts as books are inscribed with ink .… But since with the passage of time, people have strayed greatly in terms of teachings, life, and conduct, it was again necessary for them to remember through the written word” (Homily 1 on Matthew). The sleep diary is about remembering clearly and observing carefully, so that one can pin point what can be changed, what is beneficial, and what is harmful.

Keeping a diary or journaling may also provide spiritual and psychological benefits that are not necessarily restricted to a record of factors influencing sleep.  While a sleep diary is a good start and an integral part of information gathering for the clinician, much profit and insight may be gleaned from writing down a record of thoughts and feelings, for by so doing, we can process them and order them according to our higher convictions and ultimate values. It is a way by which we can daily be transformed “by the renewing of our mind, that we may test what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Titus 3:4). We can encourage good thoughts and reframe bad ones, so that we can become truly spiritual people with the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:15-16). This may also be combined with collecting inspiring thoughts or prayers from Holy Scripture and other spiritual writings.  When sleeplessness occurs, such a journal may be helpful in combating the unwanted negative thoughts that serve to reinforce the pernicious effects of insomnia.

Such a technique is not lost on the fathers as I note in Ancient Christian Wisdom.  “In patristic tradition, Blessed Augustine’s Confessions stands out as a singular example of autobiographical journaling.  In his equally unique Reconsiderations, he notes that the process of writing down observations about his life and thought increased his fervor to approach God at the level of thinking and feeling.  This observation is psychologically quite significant, since when both cognitive and affective systems are activated, deeper schemata become more accessible for modification.  In other words, Blessed Augustine implicitly affirms the value of journaling for schematic change.  In wider patristic tradition, many fathers collected, recorded, and organized sayings of elders and saints for their own edification and the spiritual enrichment of others. .  . Significantly Russian luminaries such as Saint John of Kronstadt and Father Alexander Elchaninov have availed themselves of diaries and memoirs for the sake of their own spiritual profit and the spiritual benefit of the faithful.  Properly handled, journaling, together with the more widespread patristic practice of making collections of inspiring advice, can contribute to the cultivation of good thoughts. .  .”

The ultimate therapeutic aim of keeping a diary or journal is promoting health through increased awareness and insight. The cognitive behavioral clinician may use information gleaned from such writings to clarify the relationship between discrete behaviors and insomnia and to have a realistic picture of the extent of the problem. As Christians, we can make use of a record of our thoughts and feelings surrounding our relationship to Christ in order to guide our will in making decisions that will lead to the fulfillment of the very purpose of our lives—that we might become sons and daughters of God by grace and “that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith; that we, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17). There is rest and refreshment in that thought! Thanks be to God it was written down for us.

  1. I agree with this Father. I keep a separate sleep diary just with the basics: meds taken, good quality or poor quality of sleep, did something wake me, was I obsessing over something in my mind? It’s hard to pinpoint how many hours I really get in all because sometimes, it’s just a night of tossing and turning and I don’t keep a clock in my room so I don’t obsess over the hours that are ticking by if I am awake.

    I also have a journal and my blog as well as journaling to my spiritual director. These are a great aid as well as the Jesus Prayer which I will often recite if I can’t get back to sleep.

    Have a most blessed weekend. ~ Theresa

    • I am glad you find help with diaries and journaling. They both require some effort, but they also provide some clarity.

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