Posted on December 20, 2017 by Jenn Zatopek
When I’m sleep deprived, I feel like everything in my immediate environment is too garish, as if the blades of green grass or the sheer coral trumpet vine near my house dance in front of me, and I’m completely overwhelmed by the enormity of life. Often, I get like this when I’m too tired to rest, and sleep feels like a battle I must win. But I’m learning that in those moments early in the morning, when I’m wide awake and wondering, when my mind is whirring with excitement or fear, that God is there and holds space for me.
The other night, after several nights of restless sleep, I finally emerged from my bed to meditate on God’s love using a guided meditation produced by The Liturgist’s. Afraid but after twenty minutes or so, my mind calmed down long enough to allow me to go back to bed and rest, and then I finally fell asleep, calmly and quietly. (Dear reader, take note: this does not happen every single time I have insomnia. When it doesn’t happen, and I stumble to work in a daze, I cut myself a lot of slack because, after all, sometimes sleep is hard to come by.)
However, the sleep I got the other night did feel like a small miracle, that in the midst of the madness of insomnia, I found an oasis of peace and rest. Miracles are often thought to be enormous, like a burning bush or the parting of the Red Sea. We often discount the so-called ordinary miracles like falling asleep, practicing self-care, or laughter, but they are no less amazing than the big miracles like the Incarnation and the Resurrection, a loved one getting off drugs or alcohol, your birth or mine.
So life is weird and sometimes we can’t sleep. I avoid analyzing myself too much these days and offer myself self-acceptance and grace because sleep is not something that we can command our bodies to do. It is truly an act of surrender.
Here are some of my favorite go-to strategies for dealing with a sleepless night.
1. Take a break from technology two hours prior to bedtime. Being hooked up to our computers, iPhones, and tablets are fun and engaging, but our brains need time to disconnect and relax. In fact, some research suggests that the light from our phones and tablets keeps us awake, which only increases our risk of insomnia. Practice detaching from technology as an act of resistance to our culture of frenetic productivity and rest. (See article in the UK’s Telegraph for more information.)
2. Make a quiet space in your house to go to and listen to a guided meditation when you awake in the middle of the night. In my house, I go to the study with a small nightlight to see by and listen to a collection of guided meditations on my computer. The meditation called “Centering Prayer II” on the Liturgist’s “Garden” album has relaxed me many times. See www.theliturgists.com/garden and check it out for yourself.
If you would like to cultivate self-compassion, consider looking into Dr. Kristin Neff’s self-compassion guided meditations. A practicing psychologist and professor at UT Austin, Dr. Neff wrote Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, a much-needed treatise on cultivating self-kindness, and her guided meditations are a relief for those of us who struggle with a propensity for self-criticism. Check out Dr. Neff’s guided meditations and experience some peace of mind.
3. Practice staying in your bed and reciting the ABCs of gratitude in your mind. This practice is straightforward, and I find that I usually don’t get to the end of the alphabet when I’m up at night and my mind is flinging things to get me worried. Here’s how you do it. Think of one word that begins with the letter A (or perhaps all the words you can think of) that you enjoy, repeat the word internally, and your mind will send forth an image of the word. Then move on to the next one! It’s sort of like giving your thoughts a chance to exercise and most of the time this wears them out and then you can rest. Gratitude is a go-to balm for those of us with tiny issues with fear or anger or sadness, which (of course) is really every human being on the planet. I’m not naming names or anything, but this one really works for me.
4. Get creative. If your brain will not let you sleep, journal, dress up, write or sing to yourself and see if you can get out some of the energy that is keeping you awake. Sometimes I get my best writing done at 4am. See Jenny Lawson’s latest post on insomnia and writhe with laughter.
5. When all else fails, and you have been suffering from insomnia for longer than one month, go see a doctor and consider taking a sleeping pill. Not getting consistent sleep is a serious problem and can increase the likelihood of recurrent depression, anxiety, car accidents, manic episodes, and a host of other problems. I certainly won’t judge you as I know from personal experience how bad it feels to get poor sleep. There is no shame for taking good care of yourself and if someone is doing that, then consider taking a break from the friendship or critical voice that’s beating you down.
So how do you deal with insomnia?