Thursday, October 4, 2012

3 A.M.

It's 3 A.M. I must be lonely
When she says baby
Well I can't help but be scared of it all sometimes            
Matchbox 20

In my age, as in my youth, night brings me many a deep remorse. I realize that from the cradle up I have been like the rest of the race--never quite sane in the night.
- Mark Twain   

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense-
Ralph Waldo Emerson

For as long as I can remember, I have woken up in the middle of the night. Sometimes I will go a few weeks sleeping soundly through the night, but always, at some point, my 3 A.M. wake-up call returns. Being up at this hour evokes all kinds of things in a person, including fear, loneliness, solitude, and occasionally even serenity and a sense of hope.

Although it has often felt like I was alone in the world at 3 A.M., I know I’m not the only one. I've talked to dozens of people in counseling who have reported their own experiences at this hour, and their stories always make me think about what it is about 3 A.M. that seems to stir people.

There is some research that suggests that we were never really meant to sleep in 8-hour blocks. Apparently it was perfectly common for our ancestors to wake during the night, be up for an hour or two, and then go back to bed. So, some of what we think of as “insomnia” may actually be a part of our inherited adaptation to sleep.

At one point, I thought insomnia was about existential crisis. Those moments all of us have from time to time where we think about what it is we are doing here. Who am I? Where am I’m going? These are the kinds of things that come into your head at 3 in the morning. Life can feel a little rudderless when you’re awake with your own thoughts at that hour, and those questions can be a little harder to answer when no one else is around.

I also think 3 AM. has a lot to do with anxiety, which is a future-oriented fear about business that is yet to be transacted. We worry about money and our jobs and our health, and just about anything else that has been rattling around in our heads throughout the day. These things bubble to the surface at 3 A.M., sometimes even interrupting our sleep. It can feel like a cruel trick at times, as we are not in any kind of position to solve these problems at that hour. So we worry. And think. And run the same tape deck of thoughts over and over. Sometimes we even count the occasional sheep in between the ruminations. Who among us hasn't made some kind of “sleep bargain?” “If I fall asleep now, I’ll still get 5 hours." 

That never works..

An Indian man who specialized in meditation once told me that “the body takes sleep as it needs it.” It was little comfort at the time, but in retrospect I think he had a point. Although I've certainly experienced grogginess, fatigue, and poor concentration after a night of interrupted sleep, I have found that eventually the body always succumbs when it’s had enough.. In the past I've slept for what seemed like days after hitting one of these walls.

The real question seems to be, what can we do to quiet our minds down at 3 A.M. and what steps do we need to take to “finish each day and be done with it” as Mr. Emerson recommends? I believe the antidote to restless sleep lies somewhere in answering this question.

In the meantime there are several techniques we can use that can help us power down our minds in these situations. One of my personal favorites comes from Andrew Weil, who quite literally wrote the book on breathing. The second exercise here, the “4, 7, 8” technique is the best one I know to elicit the relaxation response that helps people sleep. A commitment to doing this exercise a couple of times a day will do wonders for your ability to feel more relaxed. I guarantee it.

I would also recommend a couple of thought-stopping techniques. One of these involves imagining your thoughts as being part of a river and letting them flow away as they come into your mind. Another bit of imagery that helped me was to imagine my thoughts as pop-up adds that come up when you’re on your computer. Just because they come into your awareness, you don’t have to click on every one. It’s okay to simply let them go.

These are techniques that are useful as short-term interventions, but still, I think the question of insomnia also has a philosophical component. How do we finish each day and be done with it? Some of this involves a bit of self-forgiveness. Sure we did and said some things we may have regretted, but so has everyone else. Often we extend all kinds of understanding and forgiveness to our friends when they stumble a little, but we are unwilling to extend the same courtesy to ourselves. What’s done is done. You can take responsibility for changing it, accept it, or let it go. Those are your healthy options. Ruminating on things is a waste of precious time and energy.

We can also wake up each morning and do the things we say we are going to do. Write them down, make a list on your Ipad, tie a string around your finger if you have to, but do everything in your power to accomplish a few things that make you feel like you are moving towards the person you want to be. It has been my experience that unfinished business is a big piece of what keeps us awake at night, and reaching small goals throughout the day is a wonderful antidote. Research bears this out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am writing this article at 3 A.M. Often when I have an idea rattling around in my head, it stays there until I do something about it. Not all thoughts should be ignored, and sometimes the ones that come back are trying to tell us something. In my case I woke up and started typing. Perhaps I will learn something from a fellow 3 A.M. person, and maybe I’ll even help someone get a little sleep. In any case,

It’s done..

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