We are all hardwired to sleep, but when difficulties occur it can be frustrating to know how to get it back under control. This article explores the relationship between sleep, environment and mental challenges, looking at how understanding this can help us determine the right course of action to find healthy and restorative sleep once more.
Whether we struggle with insomnia, staying up too late, oversleeping or adjusting to seasonal time changes, the common theme is that what is supposed to be a restorative and energising process becomes draining and frustrating. Lack of sleep depletes our natural vitality, reduces our ability to function effectively and has both subtle and more obvious emotional consequences. Oversleep can leave us groggy and also interferes with our ability to be socially active and productive.
However, when we understand that sleep is governed by inner mechanisms that respond to the external environment, it is easier to accept the inevitable physical and hormonal adjustments that come with natural changes around us. Different light levels can have a significant effect on the hormones associated with sleep, so our natural response to seasonal changes is to feel more sleepy in the dark winters and more active in the light summers. This is understandable in animals who hibernate, but as humans we have different social needs and expectations. In fact, the modern trend towards ‘8 hours sleep a night’ contrasts with pre-electric sleep patterns when people often slept in two separate time periods in a night. So it may be said that any deviation from what is nowadays expected may in fact be a reversion to a more natural sleep pattern.
Another natural response is that of an increased need for sleep during illness. In sleep our bodies are restored and healed, our immune systems strengthened and the causes of illness dealt with more effectively. Unfortunately social pressures to ‘carry on regardless’ mean that we can draw illnesses out for much longer and more serious illness may occur further down the line. Ignoring our basic physical needs in favour of socially prescribed pressures to be productive may also be responsible for our tendency to overwork and experience higher levels of stress. As exhaustion grows, so does a ‘sleep deficit’, and many of us struggle to keep the candle burning at both ends. In more extreme cases we may experience higher levels of anxiety until we can get the sleep we need to soothe our jangled nerves. Or perhaps we experience a depressed response, our energy levels plummet, we don’t want to move or eat, and when we do sleep it is interrupted and filled with vivid dreams.
During an anxious episode, the stress response is active, adrenalin levels are high and we remain in a state of hypervigilance that often prevents us from getting the sleep we so desperately need. As a result our feelings of anxiety are magnified by symptoms of sleep deprivation. It becomes a vicious cycle that is made all the more frustrating by evidence showing how sleep can help to reduce anxiety. Looking at things from a different perspective however – when we understand anxiety as a psychological mechanism of avoidance – a solution starts to present itself. Our natural tendency is to avoid that which causes us pain. This might relate to situations, people, specific traumatic memories or thoughts we have about the world or ourselves.
Unfortunately, undermining beliefs – especially those about ourselves – are extremely difficult to deal with on our own. It can be easier to experience anxiety about work, health, food, sleep or anything else, rather than the feelings of uncertainty and discomfort directly stemming from those undermining beliefs. Through anxiety, we get to express the feelings without having to face the reality of what we believe ourselves to be. However, when we start addressing our fears in a safe environment, we no longer need to project those feelings onto things in our environment that we can’t really control anyway and sleep becomes possible once more.
If on the other hand we respond in a depressed way, we may become listless and despondent, perhaps experiencing disturbed sleep at night, but experiencing vivid dreams and still feeling exhausted upon waking. Daytime fatigue increases and combined with intermittent sleep, we end up in a sort of limbo of not-quite-present in the day or night. Now, a depressed response is different to major depression. The first is a normal human response to challenges that we do not yet know how to overcome. The withdrawal from everyday living, the active dreams, the reduced appetite, all indicate we are in a period of reflective processing. We free up our vital reserves by disconnecting, and use that energy to actively work through whatever challenges we face. We may notice this process, especially as ideas and solutions begin to spring up, or it might operate on an unconscious level and we simply start feeling better, but usually this doesn’t take more than a week to resolve.
Major depressive disorder though, stems from our unconscious attempts to process more traumatic challenges and can lead to a spiral of failed resolution and deeper despair. Anti-depressants reduce our REM or dream stage of sleep and can provide relief and respite for those of us who may never be able to process our experiences through this psychological mechanism. Seeking psychological help is essential in these situations. In general though, seeking help to process those underlying concerns can aid us in returning to a more sustainable pattern of sleep, rest and wakefulness. Actively working with our dream material for example can give us insights into patterns of distress as well as potential solutions for them. Additionally, sharing and exploring those dreams in therapy can validate our right to come up with our own creative solutions to the problems we face periodically throughout our lives.
Understanding our sleep challenges is a great first step to making change. Not only can we identify those areas in which we need to find a solution, but we can also experience a great sense of relief from knowing that what we are experiencing is normal. There are of course many practical resources we can access to help us build a healthy bedtime routine, and it can be helpful to rule out physical issues with a visit to the GP. However, where there are deeper issues, it can be useful to work through those challenges with a supportive and understanding person trained to help you safely access thoughts and feelings that may be disruptive and upsetting to your normal routine. Where sleep changes occur in response to natural phenomena however, such as seasonal light changes or short-term illness, it may simply be a case of accepting that we are biologically primed to adjust our sleep, and that in the end our bodies know what’s best and we may just have to sleep it out.
Take some time to consider the following questions for yourself. Take care of yourself as you do so, as uncomfortable issues may arise. If you would like some support in sorting through your discoveries please feel free to get in touch.
- Have you ever experienced issues with your sleep? How did you react? With frustration? Worry? In light of the information in this article, were those disruptions actually normal?
- What is your general attitude towards sleep? Do you make it a priority for your health or does it interfere with your ability to be productive?
- How do you take care of yourself at those times when you need more sleep, for example during illness or through winter? Do you fight it or work around it?
- Has anxiety ever prevented you from sleeping fully? Have you ever been through a period of intense dreaming? What unacknowledged challenges may have been contributing?
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The myth of the eight-hour sleep https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16964783
Jonathan Zuess, The Wisdom of Depression: A Guide to Understanding and Curing Depression Using Natural Medicine (1999), Newleaf, Dublin