What about insomnia? Is there ever going to be hope for those who simply can’t sleep, or can’t sleep long enough or deeply enough to truly feel rested?
Insomnia is one of the tougher issues to solve because so much of the condition is self-inflicted. It’s now thought of as an almost ironic state, because the mind wants sleep so badly that it can’t get it.
Many people turn to sleeping pills when they habitually can’t fall asleep when they want to, but a form of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy has been found to offer a longer-lasting solution. In some studies, subjects who were treated with cognitive behavioral therapy were much more likely to beat insomnia a year after they began treatment than those who relied on sleeping pills.
Ok, I have a kind of personal question. In college, I used to work nights (10pm to 6am at an all-night diner) and I found that I actually preferred that schedule. Do some people have alternate “body clocks,” or is that just a reflection of our adaption to our environment (much like the loss of “first” and “second” sleep)?
It could also be a third option: your body clock changes as you age. We all have a circadian rhythm, which is basically a 24-hour internal clock that guides us throughout the day. For teenagers and young twenty-somethings, this clock is wired to make it much easier to stay awake all night than it is to wake up early in the morning (which could explain why high schoolers find a 7:00 am starting bell so brutal.)
But the circadian rhythm gradually changes so that by the time you hit 55 or so, you’ll start to find yourself falling asleep earlier in the night and waking up earlier in the morning.
You mention in the book that, initially, you felt that dreams have no deeper significance–but later, you started to reconsider. Where are you on that subject now?
I’m much more open to the idea that someone can find meaning in his or her dreams that’s not necessarily reflected on a chart of brain waves. I spoke with people in dream discussion groups who talked about dreams in which they interacted with their dead relatives, and these were intensely moving experiences for them. That inherently makes them meaningful.
On a broader level, research tends to support the idea that our dreams aren’t filled with deep symbols, but are reflections of the everyday things that we care about. One theory is that we have these anxiety-filled dreams because it essentially gives our brain a dress rehearsal for what we may encounter the next day.
It seems like disturbing, unsettling, or frightening dreams could be worse for sleep than outside factors. Is it possible to dream too much?
It’s more of an issue when the brain gets stuck in a cycle of nightmares. That’s one of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder. One theory holds that chronic nightmares may be a sign that the brain hasn’t fully processed a traumatic experience and put it aside in the long-term memory. One form of therapy called image rehearsal therapy [For more on this topic, check out this very-helpful Wall Street Journal piece] works by helping someone essentially become the director of their dreams, rather than the audience.
What about sleep “remedies,” like exercise, or not eating before bed? Can those actually improve sleep quality?
So much of falling asleep, and staying that way, is a mental battle. One research study, for instance, tracked the amount of physical exertion that subjects experienced in a day to see whether it was simply exhaustion that helps us fall asleep. Yet those who walked, ran or lifted the most weren’t necessarily the first ones to sleep.
Sleep doctors tend to suggest focusing on what they call sleep cues, which are signs that the body and brain should prepare for bed. For some people, that might be sleeping with the TV on, and for others it might be eating a peanut butter sandwich before bed. Other things that can help improve sleep are limiting your exposure to bright lights in the hour or so before bed, taking a hot shower and falling asleep and waking up at roughly the same times every day.
Images via W. W. Norton & Company, and maiwharn from Shutterstock