What if sleep, as Arianna Huffington said in her book The Sleep Revolution, “gives us a chance to refocus on the essence of who we are?”
What would that mean, first, for those of us who don’t get enough sleep? When I ask people at my book readings (Stories for Getting Back to Sleep) what they feel like when they don’t get enough sleep, invariably many respond by saying that the next day they feel their thinking becomes fuzzy, that they can’t focus, that they get mixed up easily, that they are short tempered; a few say they feel crazy. They imply that these effects of sleeplessness make them different people, not who they want to be in the world. It’s almost as if they are describing a different person, estranged from their own essence.
I then ask people how they feel when they get abundant sleep. They say that their thinking is clear, that they can focus on tasks, that they are relaxed and able to get into the flow of doing what’s meaningful in their lives. What comes through in these descriptions is a sense of energy and wholeness, of being close to one’s essential nature. What’s interesting is that they describe being-in-action—thinking, relaxed responding, doing—without stumbling over themselves.
Sleep is an invisible backdrop for living fully. Without it, the self is disrupted, disoriented, fragmented.
So how does sleep help us refocus on the essence of who we are? Both Arianna Huffington and Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, say adequate sleep helps us integrate memories and new learnings. The biological process of absorbing what we have experienced during our waking hours takes time and short cutting that process has consequences, like those short-term effects that we are especially aware of the next day. What I find as I talk with people about their sleep is that many people stop at the short-term consequences of sleep deprivation—their next-day woes and desperation.
New research summarized by Walker and Huffington, however, shows that sleep deprivation is associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer. And the sleep medications, on which many people rely, contribute to short and long term adverse health effects, especially dementia.
Just as important, there is the slow loss of what is essential to ourselves, of our being fully in the world.
As I started writing Stories for Getting Back to Sleep, I had no idea the extent of the damage sleeplessness causes. I am now a sleep advocate. I help people understand the need for more sleep and connect them with cognitive behaviorial approaches to sleep problems. These approaches place agency back with sleepers who can develop the capacity to put themselves to sleep or back to sleep. The scenarios in Stories for Getting Back to Sleep offer readers ideas for how to tell themselves relaxing stories, especially in the middle of the night. You can use them or create your own. The idea is to awaken in the morning to find sleep has refreshed you, has helped you refocus who you are.
[I am also an advocate for the amazing organization Tostan (Tostan.org), a nonprofit working to empower communities in West Africa to increase their wellbeing. I am donating all proceeds from Stories for Getting Back to Sleep to Tostan.]