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Insomnia and Talking to Oneself

May 30, 2014

christ_with_sheep_1024x1024_000f40e8-e672-4000-8125-a77694d48331_1024x1024Whenever we encounter difficulties in life or whenever some unexpected suffering comes our way, our natural instinct is to find an immediate escape from that difficulty or suffering. When such an escape is not readily available or manifest to us, we may become despondent or begin to think the worst, which in psychological terms is known as catastrophizing. We can tell we’re doing this by the nature of our interior dialogue that we have with ourselves. That private conversation can aggravate an existent problem and generate new ones.

In his dissertation, “Treating Insomnia-A Cognitive Behavioral Group Therapy Approach”, Alfonso Marino offers an alternative to the instinctual impulse to escape and engage in pessimistic rumination. Marino defines it as “positive self-talk” which he describes in this fashion, “Try to have a positive attitude towards your sleep and try repeating the following points to yourself: a) I have set aside time to deal constructively with my problems tomorrow. b) If I awaken early tonight, I will not dwell upon it, but will remain relaxed with my mind in neutral. c) Nightly arousals are normal. d) Developing these sleep habits took time, so it will also take time for them to return back to normal.” In other words, he suggests making true statements that normalize the situation and enable one to see that one’s plight, though highly unpleasant, is really not the end of the world.

This strategy has been applied elsewhere with varying degrees of success. For example, in Alcoholics Anonymous, newcomers are quickly introduced to various slogans (positive self-talk) to ward off the temptation to drink so that they are able to continue to battle their alcoholism especially during times of temptation or suffering. Slogans such as “One Day at a Time” or “This Too Shall Pass” are two examples that may be borrowed and adapted to the circumstances of the insomniac.

After all, suffering and difficulties are an inevitable part of our fallen human condition. They can’t be avoided forever and the goal should be to live in peace and tranquility in spite of them. The insomniac, the alcoholic, and anyone experiencing difficulties in life must shun the alluring temptation of the quick fix, be careful about the content of their inner dialogue, and live in the moment.

The rational, normalizing positive self-talk of cognitive therapy as well as the tried slogans of AA have their value, but there is, to use Saint Paul’s expression, “a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). If we pray consistently and attentively, words from Scripture and the holy fathers well up in us during times of anxiety, stress, and sleeplessness. The words of Psalm 118 come to mind, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever. . . When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; He brought me into a spacious place. The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? The Lord is with me; He is my helper. I look in triumph on my enemies.”

Prayer cultivates and nurtures this remembrance of God of which the Psalmist sings. Prayer is a constant reminder that God is with us, most especially in our difficulties and temptations. He does not send them to us as punishment. Abba Dorotheos writes, “The person who truly comes to serve God must prepare his soul, as it says in the Wisdom of Sirach (2:1), for temptations. Thus, that he will never be surprised or disturbed by what happens, believing nothing that happens without the providence of God and where there is the providence of God certainly what happens is good and for the benefit of the soul. For, everything that God does, He does for our benefit and because He loves us and has pity on us. We must, as the Apostle says, ‘In everything give thanks” (1 Thessalonians 5:18), for His goodness. We must never be troubled or narrow minded about anything which happens to us but we must calmly accept everything which happens with humility and hope in God, believing, as I have said, that everything that God does for us, He does because of His goodness and it is never possible for things to be better than the way God arranges them in His mercy” (Lesson 13, “On the Suffering of Temptation Calmly and Thankfully”).

In prayer and the constant remembrance of God, we move beyond the mind’s rational self-talk to a recognition of God’s presence and love for each of us. We are brought to the realization that perhaps sleeplessness is beyond our power to control but God is with us and we trust that He knows what is ultimately good for us.

In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I compare and contrast cognitive techniques and spiritual strategies. “The fathers also advise the faithful to ponder how God blesses them materially, spiritually, temporally, and eternally, so that they will be moved to gratitude and motivated to lead the God-pleasing life of virtue. This kind of theoria alters their behavior. The centrality of this approach in Orthodox Christianity is evident in the placement of such a remembrance of the entire divine economy at the heart of the Divine Liturgy before the priest consecrates the holy gifts. From a psychological perspective, this theoria is a mental activity that therapists could call a cognitive technique. From a spiritual vantage point, however, it is a blessed and sanctifying use of the rational aspect of the soul and attracts the grace of God” (ACW, p. 197).

When our life in God is consistent and constant, in spite of the ebbs and flows of daily life, we remain undisturbed because we grasp what Saint Paul wrote to the Romans, “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38). And even if we cannot yet fathom these words as deeply as we should, we can still begin by taking these treasures from Scripture such as these words from Saint Paul or the Psalms of David and make them our positive self-talk and our trusty slogans, gently and hopefully repeating them to ourselves again and again. In so doing, we can remain positive, we can feel calm, we can feel safe, and we might just fall asleep as well.

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