It’s been ingrained in us that we need plenty of sleep to function during the day. Many of us know we don’t function well without our precious 8 hours. We’ve been led to believe that our sleep should come in a solid chunk through the night. Research in recent years has underscored the value of short naps during the workday to boost productivity. Also, to catch up on sleep, it’s important to go to bed early; sleeping longer the next day doesn’t work as well.
My sleeping habits evolved in recent years to include a window in the middle of the night when I wake up and just can’t get back to sleep. For a long time, I thought this was bad and harmful. It turns out, it may be closer to our sleeping habits before the Industrial Revolution up-ended everything.
Before streetlights and the ubiquity and safety of night time activities, it was commonplace for people to sleep from shortly after dark for four hours and then wake up for an hour or two. This was commonly used for praying, reading or sex. It was also at times an opportunity to visit with family and neighbors. People would then return to sleep for another four hours before rising to start another day.
It wasn’t until the first half of the 19th century that medical journals were encouraging sleeping through the night. As people were out for longer days and activities were more accessible after dark thanks to street and interior lamps, it became encouraged to sleep through the then shorter night.
So, in our contemporary lives, when we awaken in the middle of the night, it’s understandable we’d get anxious that we’re losing sleep. The problem isn’t actually the loss of sleep. The problem is the anxiety about it. That anxiety, it seems, might lead to the real loss of sleep, the inability to return to sleep after a brief period of waking life because we’re agitated about having woken up in the first place.
Further, it’s thought that the time between sleeping periods in the past may have been used to contemplate and meditate on the demands, stresses, pleasures and hopes of life. This opportunity may have contributed to one’s capacity to modulate and manage the stressors of life. Without this built in window of meditation, we’re pushing our stresses elsewhere, inward where they fester perhaps, or into times when we’re already stressed, like when we’re stuck in traffic. We’re stuck processing and regulating our stress at inopportune moments when it’s likely to erupt rather than be dealt with effectively, as through meditation.
So, now when I find myself staring at the ceiling at 3 am, unable to get back to sleep, I try meditating. I’ve got a guided meditation in my iTunes. I also count from 1 to 10 and imagine each number in a different landscape I’ve been to, like the red rocks of Sedona, the foggy hills of San Francisco or the Fall colors on the Appalachian Trail. I might also think about an achievement or success from the past day and something positive I can anticipate about the day to come. If necessary, I distract myself from worries about the past or anxieties about what’s to come. That’s a trap for not falling asleep again. Sometimes, I’ll pick up a book and read until I’m tired again. It’s important to avoid turning on any electric screen like an iphone or TV, the light from which inhibits the production of melatonin which makes us drowsy and ready for sleep.
Next time you’re awake in the middle of the night, don’t fret. Read, pray, have sex or use the other strategies I’ve mentioned. Then, when you’re tired again, settle into another comfy slumber.
For more, check out the BBC News Magazine article here.