I have insomnia when I’m stressed. I wish I could be one of those people who just goes to bed and sleeps it off–at least that’s a healthy response to stress. But no, I sleep for a few hours and then I’m wide awake, lying in bed while my mind clicks through lists of things I should do or problems I can’t solve.cat-eyes

Lately, I’ve been sleeping between 12 am and 4 am. That’s not good, unless you’re Albert Einstein. Since I’m not about to invent incandescent lighting, this scenario is not ideal for me. I just can’t stay asleep.

When I have insomnia, it’s usually one of 5 reasons. I have decided to identify these areas of concern, in hopes of convincing myself that insomnia is silly, and I should just stop doing it. Here are the typical reasons (they usually don’t occur at the same time) that I don’t sleep:

  1. Worry. (Okay, obsession and extreme agitation.) There are a few possible causes for my worry. 1) Usually my kids. I rehearse their current problems in my head and then I follow each to its final demise (always worse at night than in real life). Then I sort through what I will have to do to fix the problem (if I can). 2) If the kids are all fine, I will direct my worry toward things I need to do and the lack of time to do them. I prioritize and re-prioritize until I have to get up and schedule it all out on my calendar with unrealistic expectations. Depending on my problem-solving skills and if/how much I eat when I’m up, I might be able to fall back asleep for 5 minutes before the alarm clock goes off. 3) Bad dreams also fall into the worry category. If I have a bad dream, I might spend the rest of my night in semi-sleep, attempting to make the dream turn out better, or I will stay fully awake and problem-solve how to keep this radical dream from coming true (which all insomniacs believe is possible.)
  2. Disappointment. If I’ve said something harsh, rude, or foolish, I remember it in bed and feel disappointed with myself. If someone else has failed to meet my expectations, I side-step my way through this maze, checking out all the reasons I feel let down, and if the problem is with me or the other person. If I decide my expectations were completely founded, my emotions may evolve into anger, in which case, I might as well get up and be productive, rather than simmer. If, however, I decide my expectations were completely unfounded, I will try to make peace with the whole debacle and fall back asleep. Once again, the alarm clock awaits the onslaught of deep sleep until buzzing.
  3. Regret. I relive something I should have done and act out what would have happened if I’d done it differently. I remember many nights when my boys were little, regret always stole my sleep following a trip to JCPenney’s to get their portrait taken. In those days, you either went to Wal-Mart (terrible pictures) or to JCPenney (decent pictures, but highway robbery to choose more than the $10 package). The kids had to sit up on a box draped with germ-filled shag carpeting, while an over-zealous photographer-in-training made goofy faces at them and startled them with dancing stuffed animals. But there were always some good shots, with props and backgrounds that weren’t part of the package deal, causing the price to escalate to $30/sheet. I always agonized over which pictures to buy and which ones to leave. Inevitably, after I went to bed, I would realize which ones I should have purchased in addition to the ones I did purchase. Only then, the pictures were gone forever. A pox on the house of Penney.
  4. Grief. This is the hardest, and I don’t mention it lightly. Its degree of difficulty will depend on the reason for it. I may have superficial grief over a lost opportunity (i.e. cute pictures, thrown needlessly away at JCPenney). Or I may have experienced extreme loss, like a broken relationship or someone’s personal tragedy. Grief is only handled by leaning into God and dumping the anguish before him. Either way, grief loves to surface at night, when it can reek havoc in my brain. There’s no quick fix for handling grief, although there is a helpful list of the five stages of grief with which you may want to familiarize yourself: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Despair and depression, and Recovery. Grief expert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross cites this list as the path that all grieving people must move through to gain healing. Best piece of advice here: deal with grief during daylight hours!
  5. Anticipation. This sounds lovely! Finally, a positive emotion.  Occasionally at bedtime, I feel excitement, anticipation, or expectation for an upcoming trip, presentation, or ceremony. Something good is going to happen, so I replay the scenarios in my head. In my case, I find myself rehearsing responses, thinking through wardrobe options, and if I’m presenting something, practicing what I’m going to say. While practice is helpful,  anticipatory objectives can easily swerve into worry in the middle of the night. (Just a heads-up.)

I am not a doctor, and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn last night. If you want to explore why you might not be sleeping, check out some other websites for an exhaustive list of symptoms for insomnia, like WebMD and RMHealthy, or go see your doctor. But by all means, get some sleep before you bite someone’s head off. Or do something more embarrassing, like when I fell asleep while I was tutoring! I actually did. I heard myself saying something that made no sense whatsoever, and I snapped out of it and looked at my student’s puzzled face and tried to fake like I was thinking deep thoughts and had just arrived at a profound observation.

Yep. If you don’t get enough sleep at night, you will fall asleep at inopportune moments.

But if you only experience insomnia on occasion because you’re a bit OCD or perfectionistic, then check out my suggestions below:

  • go to bed by 10 pm (your body clock is most ready for deep sleep then)
  • ingest herbal supplements: drink sleepy time (camomile) tea, take melatonin, L-Theanine, camomile
  • have someone massage your neck and back before bed (no one does this for me, but I expect it works wonders!)
  • turn off all electronics 30 minutes before bedtime
  • don’t drink caffeine or eat sugar after dinner
  • work out hard during the day
  • take a hot bath at night
  • read before bed
  • talk to your doctor about taking prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids, if you must (Ambien, Lunesta, Simply Sleep, Tylenol PM, etc.)–but be selective; they all work differently on different people. If you must try something, start off with a tiny dose. You can wake up with a hung-over feeling if you take too much

One of my best defenses against insomnia is prayer. I don’t pray against insomnia. I just pray for everyone I can think of, and pretty soon, my eyelids feel heavy. It’s not a super-spiritual tactic, but it works a lot of the time. And the side benefit is this: if my insomnia is caused by our spiritual enemy, he certainly doesn’t want me praying. So it’s a win/win.

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matt. 6:31-34, NLT)


image by George Hodan

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