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The Value of Discipline: Some Behavioral Suggestions for Insomnia

April 3, 2014

The behavioral treatment options available to those suffering from insomnia are quite practical and stunningly simple. Yet, very often many of life’s solutions are practical and simple. We need to do something(s) different. What complicates matters for us are our own predilections, preferences, and idiosyncracies. We have a divided will that makes it difficult to choose certain courses of action that may restrict us, but can perhaps resolve an even more troubling situation. The notion of cutting off the will for the sake of an ultimate goal, familiar in the monastic milieu, has its place in many aspects of life as well as in the daily, or nightly, challenges we may face.

Abba Poimen once said, “A person’s will forms the stony resistance of a bronze wall between him and God. If the person abandons it, he can say, ‘In my God I leapt over a wall’” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, PG 65.332). In like manner, Abba Sisoe used to say, “Cast your will behind you and become carefree and find rest” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, PG 65.405). Perhaps, in the case of insomnia, one needs to set aside one’s desire to just fall asleep naturally like everyone else and stick to some challenging behavioral changes that will make sleep more likely. Perhaps then, one can become carefree and find some rest.

Although sleep is neither an automatic, autonomous process nor a voluntary action, it is nevertheless a behavior. And as such, researchers have determined that it “is susceptible to conditioning processes which are governed by environmental and temporal stimuli. When these stimulus conditions lose their association to sleep the foundation for chronic insomnia begins to take form.” Bedroom and bedtime should be so associated with sleep that they come to mean sleep-room and sleep-time. Unfortunately in insomnia, instead of making us drowsy and ready for a nap, the exact opposite associations get formed around the bedroom and bedtime, which become the frustration-room and frustration-time, making falling asleep that much more difficult.

Alfonso Morin notes, “In addition to work on dysfunctional cognitions, behavioral treatment components involve the alterations of temporal, contextual and behavioral factors. The intention is to ensure that the timing of sleep is set to circadian principles (temporal), in an environment that is conducive to sleep (contextual), while maladaptive sleep habits (behavioral) are being modified (Morin 1993).” The behavioral therapists recommend that those suffering from insomnia do the following: 1) establish and maintain a standard time for sleep such as 12:00 a.m. – 6:00 a.m. 2) establish a standard wake-up time, 3) ensure that sleep time occurs in line with one’s own need for rest, 4) rise from the bed when unable to sleep, 5) eliminate all other activities and/or distractions from the sleep space, and 6) maintain the same amount of time in bed each night. The value of this disciplined regimen is well documented in scientific research and can provide for the re-establishment of one’s natural circadian rhythm, which assists in the sleep process.

Discipline, temperance, and abstinence are also basic elements of Christian asceticism. Saint Gregory of Nyssa once wrote, “Temperance ‘is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her;’ and they sailed across the swelling billows of existence upon this tree of life, as upon a skiff; and anchored in the haven of the will of God; enviable now after so fair a voyage, they rest their souls in that sunny cloudless calm. They now ride safe themselves at the anchor of a good hope, far out of reach of the tumult of the billows; and for others who will follow they radiate the splendor of their lives as beacon-fires on some high watch-tower” (On Virginity, 24). Discipline, temperance, and abstinence are valuable because of where they lead. When practiced for the sake of overcoming insomnia, they can lead to more regular sleep, certainly something to be desired. But when practiced for the sake of Christ, they can lead to something far greater, “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

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