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The Power of Activity After a Sleepless Night

May 10, 2014

In the proverbs of Solomon, it is written, “as the door turneth upon his hinges, so doth the slothful upon his bed” (24:16). Those with insomnia, however, are not necessarily slothful. And in fact, many of those struggling with this nightly affliction will get out of their beds and do something profitable when they can’t sleep, rather than turning like a door on its hinges, thus demonstrating not sloth, but vigor and vigilance while others sleep. And yet after a sleep-deprived night, when we feel tired and find ourselves nodding off, doesn’t it make sense to go to take it easy and not over exert oneself? It certainly makes sense; it obviously feels appropriate; and yet some studies provide evidence to the contrary.

In her article, “A Transdiagnostic Approach to Treating Sleep Disturbance in Psychiatric Disorders”, author Allison G. Harvey mentions a study she conducted comparing the effects of spending a block of time conserving energy (sleeping in in the morning, going back to bed, and only exerting energy on the most mundane tasks) as opposed to spending a block of time expending energy (taking a brisk walk or engaging in an exercise routine). The findings are somewhat surprising. Harvey found that expending energy actually helps one feel less lethargic and tired during the day. At a cellular level, activity sets the cell’s mitochondria (our body’s microscopic power plants) to work to produce energy that motion requires, leaving a bit extra left over to cut the edge off fatigue.

Of course, lethargy or sleepiness may be caused by various factors including blood sugar levels, allergies, stress, or boredom. These feelings may not necessarily be directly related to sleep deprivation. Regardless, expending energy through exercise, social engagement, or just getting out of the house may help relieve the apparent symptoms of sleepiness. When we look to the Gospels and the perfect example given by Christ, we see that He would pray during the night and meet the crowds during the day, always moving about, walking, healing, exhorting, and transforming the lives of those He touched. Being active and industrious at all times, learning from the ant and considering its ways (Proverbs 6:6), is ingrained in the Old Testament and the New. To the psychological counsel to be active in spite of being weary, we can add the patristic counsel to be, in the words of Saint John Chyrsostom, “energetic and alert, although being hindered a thousand times, devoting oneself so much the more to the things of God, fulfilling all as far as possible and in everything giving thanks” (Homily Concerning the Statues, 1).

While the body is a remarkable organism that provides us warning signals when we have taxed it beyond its limits, sometimes these warning signals are associated with other non-physical factors. In terms of someone suffering from insomnia, exercise or some energy release might be a beneficial practice. It may also be a corrective to a succession of sleepless nights. You won’t know unless you give it a try. And as always, if one adds the element of faith, if one shapes one’s activities according to the imitation of Christ and the Saints, the intervention becomes a means not only to better living, but a blessed way of living. Then, it’s not just a natural reaction of our cells that give us energy, but our faith in God that strengthens us. Then, we shall be like unto those about whom the Prophet Isaiah once wrote: “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). And not even a sleepless night can stop them.

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