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Insomnia and the Art of Learning to Relax

May 20, 2014

Saint Gregory of Nyssa once remarked that nature “finds the body tense through wakefulness, and by means of sleep devises relaxation for this tenseness, giving the sense perceptions rest from their activity for a time, loosing them just like we release horses from the chariots after the race” (On the making of man, 13). Can there be a more apt analogy to the simple and natural art of falling asleep? Making use of this analogy, learning how to fall asleep is about learning how to let go of one’s thoughts, to let go of movement, to let go of winning, and to let go of purposeful activity just like a charioteer releases his horses to pasture after a hard day’s race. So much of our lives are about holding the reins tightly, that letting go of them sometimes quite paradoxically requires extra effort to exert no effort. One such effort often suggested by physicians and psychologists alike is relaxation training, a topic we have addressed in blog posts on chronic pain  and type-A personality behavior.

The word relaxation is derived from the Latin word laxus meaning wide, open, loose, and spacious. It can be contrasted with strictus (the root for the English word for strict and related to the English word for strong) having the connotations of binding, holding tightly, controlling, and even attacking. As this concept relates to sleep, relaxation involves being in a place in body and soul that is wide, open, loose and spacious, which gently and naturally leads to a reduction of psychological, emotional, or physical arousal. As Alfonso Marino writes, “An integral component of CBT in the treatment of insomnia is relaxation training. Arousal interferes with sleep. Physiological activity must be reduced in order to initiate sleep. Physiological arousal may be manifested by a rapid heart rate or muscle tension brought on by frustration or anxiety over not being able to sleep (Freedman & Sattler, 1982). Similarly, cognitive arousal may be manifested through worry, rumination, intrusive thoughts and planning (Morin et al. 1999).”

Relaxation techniques may help reduce some of these symptoms, especially the physiological manifestations. Marino notes later in his dissertation that progressive muscle relaxation training is particularly effective in coping with physiological arousal. In terms of dealing with cognitive arousal associated with intrusive thoughts and ruminations, Marino suggests the use of guided imagery such as imagining a peaceful setting such as watching a sunset or “feeling the warm sun on your skin and the sand between the toes.”

For physical beings with active minds, this advice can be very helpful, but we are also spiritual beings for whom rest and peace is more than a matter of relaxed muscles and pleasant fantasies. Trust in God’s love, a perception of God’s warmth, and a sense of God’s Sabbath rest can bring a completeness to these bodily techniques and direct us to the open expanses in which relaxation can indeed be found. And in general, thoughts about beautiful aspects of creation such as the sea and the sunset can be springboards for a quiet and calming gratitude for the many gifts that our merciful Lord has already bestowed upon us. Gratitude makes us feel secure; gratitude makes the world seem a bit more spacious; and gratitude shifts our focus from our problems to the solutions that have appeared often unexpectedly on our laps. Without a doubt, gratitude can be relaxing. There are even contemporary studies  maintaining this very point. But what is even more important for our purposes, gratitude, unlike pleasant musings, can be real, far more real than an imagined sunset and far more personal. It would seem to be the ideal complement for any Christian attempting to relax and go to sleep.

 

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