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.”