In recent years, neurologists, psychologists, and athletic trainers have been stressing the critical importance of a good night’s sleep. It’s easy to find out the devastating effects of sleep deprivation, or to buy the latest sleep tracker for monitoring hours slept, REM sleep, deep sleep, etc.
The message is that anyone trying to optimize their health must optimize their sleep. Sleep is crucial. You. Must. Sleep.
That’s a lot of pressure, don’t you think? I have one question for these delta wave-tracking sleep scientists: How do you people sleep?
A Special Kind of Insomnia
Picture a health-conscious person who’s prone to anxiety, perfectionism, or low self-esteem. They read the articles, listen to the scientists, and buy the devices. Rest takes on a new meaning for them, and a special kind of insomnia is born.
Sleep ceases to be a period of rest at the end of the day and instead becomes a high-risk activity with a lot on the line. Before you get up for the following day, you assign yourself the task of getting the correct amount of sleep before dawn. This creates insidious anticipatory anxiety around falling asleep.
It’s on you now. You must reach that “destination” or else you’ll be doing irreparable damage to your body and brain. If you cannot complete this task, you will not only wake up feeling tired. You will feel like you failed.
This is the ultimate dysfunctional attitude about rest.
The researchers discovered that the hopelessness and irrational thinking that come from insomnia contribute strongly to suicidal thinking. A doctor involved in the study described the attitudes of his patients:
“It goes something like, ‘My marriage is a mess, I hate my job, I can’t communicate with my kids, I can’t even sleep.’”
“I can’t even sleep,” as if sleeping were a reflection of his character. This is what happens when a natural process is transformed into an anxious struggle for control. Rest ceases to be rest when rest becomes a performance.
Quick Note on Sleep
For this article, we will address insomnia that stems from a fear of not getting sleep. However, it should be noted that insomnia can have several sources and be treated in many ways.
It can stem from neurological conditions like TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), or general life stress. There are many practical treatments for insomnia such as practicing sleep hygiene, using cognitive behavioral therapy and using sleep aids like CBD(Cannabidiol).
Zen and Performance Anxiety
Alan Watts was a teacher of Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophy who wrote about the strange ways people sabotage themselves with anxiety. To him, sleep was a zen activity.
In Zen activities, the harder you try to solve the problem, the bigger the problem becomes. In one of his most famous talks, Watts describes this trap:
“So when you go to sleep and you try to go to sleep, you interfere with the spontaneous process of going to sleep. Try to breathe. Real Hard. You find you get balled up in your breathing.”
If you’re lying in bed, and you’re struggling to “get to” sleep, you are performing. Bedtime is showtime and the spotlight is on you.
At its core, this bedridden performance anxiety is a crisis of faith. “What if I can’t sleep?” is a doubt not only in yourself but in a process the body moves toward naturally. Without trying.
To combat this fear, what needs to be built and reinforced is trust. Rest should be beneficial for you, not for meeting your health quota.
If you make sleep part of your to-do list, you enslave yourself to it. In that sense, you sacrifice your life to your “health.” Is it worth the price? Peace of mind is more essential and funny enough, peace of mind is what makes it easiest to fall asleep.
Don’t get me wrong. Rest is incredibly important. But that’s how I view it. Rest. Rest is for psychologically recharging and allowing yourself some peace. Sleep is for the efficient optimization of bodily function.
Which sounds better to you?
Tips and Insights for Building Trust in Your Sleep
- Let go of trying to prevent the disaster of not sleeping. Sleep is a surrender. Let your mind wander, or as many doctors will suggest, do something else to occupy your time. You may find you’re not completely devastated, incompetent, or incapable of having fun. You’re just a little foggy, and you can handle it.
- You are tougher than you think. Scientists often underestimate what human beings are capable of. Look at United States Navy SEAL training. During “Hell Week,” aspiring SEALs will endure one week of constant physical training. They are given little to no time for rest. If someone can survive that, then you can survive missing some sleep occasionally without risk of permanent damage.
- Telling someone you must sleep is like telling someone you must have a bowel movement between 10:30 PM and 6:30 AM, or you’ll die. Does that sound reasonable to you?
- A note about work: This is not going to be possible for every job, but if you’re anxious about not getting enough rest because of work the next day, consider taking a day off. Permitting yourself not to get a good night’s rest, often leads to rest. Adults have responsibilities, but they’re also responsible for their well-being.
- If you’re a disciplined person who operates on strict schedules, I get it. But rest should not be overtaken by perfectionism. Life is more flexible than you think. You can adapt to changing situations and still be productive. Try “going with the flow” more often.
Put It to Rest
Resting shouldn’t be something you have to do. It should be something you get to do. It’s dangerous to take rest and make it just another thing to worry about, or worse, something to feel ashamed of. Health professionals don’t seem to realize this.
Falling asleep is letting go, and the more you try to sleep, the more you cling to being awake. Change your relationship with it. Try letting it come to you instead.
And I know how anxiety works. You could have all the insight in the world, and there still may be times when the fear overwhelms you. That’s ok. The goal is to lie down and let go of the rest. You’ve done all you can do, so you don’t have to struggle anymore. Whatever happens, happens.
I hope you regain your faith in what the body knows by heart. Trusting in yourself, and in your ability to adapt to change, will carry you into sleep.