A Working Man’s Cure For Insomnia

From time to time I experience insomnia.  After a while, you get used to it.  You wake up at 1:30 a.m., fully alert, and after trying unsuccessfully to fall back asleep you yield to the inevitable, get up, and do something until you feel like you can fall back asleep again.  I think insomnia occurs when something important is happening, and my subconscious brain just won’t stop fretting about it even while my conscious brain is asleep.

img_9638But, for me, at least, there is a cure for insomnia:  physical labor, preferably outside.

The last few days I’ve been fighting the dandelion wars out in the yard.  This involves bending over and, frequently, getting down on hands and knees to find the roots of the dastardly dandelions, then using a gardening tool as a lever to try to pop them out.  Often that’s a struggle, as you dig around in the hard ground trying to find the root — because if you don’t find the root those dandelions are just going to crop up once more and you’ll have to do the whole exercise over again.  Fill a bucket with the dandelion roots, flowers, leaves and other remains, walk down to deposit them in our compost pile, and then start over again in another part of the yard.  Do that for a few hours on a bright, sunny day and you’ll discover muscles in your back and legs and hands that you’ve forgotten you had.  Do that for a few days and hands that haven’t known callouses for decades might actually begin to develop a few, and hamstrings will be crying out for relief.

And at night, when darkness falls, you’ll find that you’re so exhausted that sleep comes easily and the nocturnal bouts with insomnia simply don’t happen.  It’s as if the physical fatigue overwhelms any effort by the subconscious mind to force you awake, so you sleep well — other than a leg cramp or two.

It’s just one of the many benefits of physical work — and obviously weeding doesn’t even hold a candle to the degree of effort needed to work on a construction crew or a farm.  People who do that for a living must sleep like rocks.

What A Difference A Night Makes

Recently I’ve been having some irregular sleep patterns.  I’ll go to bed and fall asleep promptly, but then wake up only a few hours later, with heart pumping and mind racing. When that happens, it’s hard to fall back into the REM cycle quickly, and I’ll inevitably toss and turn for as much as an hour, fretting all the while that I’m losing out on sleep that I need and will never make up.

But last night I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, slept through the night without any nocturnal wakefulness, and arose feeling refreshed.  When I went down to make the morning coffee the birds were chirping, I unloaded the dishwasher with a happy feeling, and the coffee tasted richer and better than ever.

Wake up of an asleep girl stopping alarm clockThere’s no doubt that sleep is therapeutic on multiple fronts.  The National Institutes of Health reports that, physically, the changes in breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure that occur during a good night’s sleep help to promote cardiovascular health, and while you sleep hormones are released that repair cells and control your body’s use of energy.  And although the physical aspects of sleep are significant, the mental aspects are even more important.  Getting your 7 or 8 hours of sound sleep enhances mood, alertness, intellectual functioning, and reflexes, while chronic sleep deprivation can lead to depression and anxiety disorders.

Knowing all of this, why doesn’t the human brain always do what is necessary to allow everyone to get their share of shuteye?  Unfortunately, things don’t don’t work that way, stresses and concerns at work and at home can interfere with the sleep cycle, and then the lack of sleep and the irritability it produces can have a compounding effect on those stresses and concerns.

That’s one of the reasons why getting a solid night of slumber time after a few night’s of anxious restlessness feels so good.  You may not be making up for lost sleep, but it’s comforting to know that your mind and body are back to their normal cycles — at least, until the next round of stresses and concerns hit.

On The Edge Of Slumber

I woke up at 3 a.m. to go to the bathroom.  (Hey, I’m a guy in his late 50s.  It happens.)  When I came back to bed I knew the next few moments would be the acid test — either I would promptly drift back into blissful sleep, or I’d start thinking about something and deal with an unwanted period of tossing and turning.

fotolia_42638075_full-moon2Unfortunately, it was the latter.  For me, the wakefulness always seems to start with a single concrete thought — whether it be about work, or a family issue, or something else — that acts to drive away the possibility of sleep.  Just as I feel as if I am on the edge of slumber, another point will arise, and suddenly I’m getting up because I remember something and need to leave myself a reminder for when I will get up for good.

The experts will tell you that sleep occurs when the conscious mind goes dormant and the unconscious mind takes over.  But how do you encourage that hard-working conscious mind that you needed to help you stumble to the bathroom in the dark to let go, already?

This morning, I really felt the battle between the two parts of the brain, with the conscious mind and its structured ideas trying to remain in control and the subconscious mind always lurking beneath, ready to pounce as soon as the conscious mind lets its guard down.  It’s an interesting, if frustrating, phenomenon, and when it happens I try to slow my breathing, gradually clear my mind of everything, and let those dreamlike notions that are cavorting out on the periphery to come on down to center stage.  Sometimes, if the conscious mind is really persistent, I’ll try to think of some obviously surreal situation that is like a dream.  If it works, as it did this time, the effect is instantaneous, and the next thing I know it’s 5:30 and time to begin the morning.

I’d prefer to sleep like a log every night, but I’m convinced that it’s just not possible for people with busy lives.  When those wakeful nights hit, you have to have a technique for dealing with it and letting you get back to the shuteye that we all need.

With The Pre-Dawn Crickets

Some nights, I just don’t get a good night’s sleep.  I’ll doze off for small, fitful chunks of time, have an unsettled dream, wake up with the wisps of the dream already fading, a racing heartbeat, and a dose of heartburn, look at the clock with a groan, and then try again.  Usually in the 4 a.m. time frame I jolt awake, give up on trying any more, and decide I might as well start the day.

IMG_7166When that happens, as it unfortunately did this morning, I like to open the windows, let the cool morning air wash in, look out the windows at the street light and empty sidewalks, and listen to the crickets against the blanketing backdrop of silence.  4 a.m. may be an out-of-joint time for us humans, but it seems to be prime time for the crickets.

It’s odd, but we seem to have far more cricket sound in our new semi-urban house in German Village, with its tiny gardens and yards separating buildings that are only a few feet apart, than we ever had in our suburban home in the rolling, white-fenced countryside of New Albany.  Perhaps the cricket noise is just more noticeable in the pre-dawn quiet in this place and setting, where we expect to hear people walking past and the sounds of cars rattling down the brick-paved streets.

I’d always prefer a sound sleep, of course, but when it just doesn’t happen it makes no sense to fight the reality, tossing and turning and becoming snarled in twisted sheets and blankets.  Far better to get up, enjoy the skin-tingling gusts of cool air that waft through the opened windows, appreciate the darkness and solitude, and try to develop a zen-like attitude and reflect on the world during a time of great calm.  The cricket symphony in the background helps.

The Insomniac’s Lament

I had one of those nights again last night.  If you’ve every experienced insomnia, you know exactly what I mean.

IMG_3242My brain was racing and flitting from topic to topic, as if it were under the power of a bored husband handling the TV remote control and driving his wife to distraction as he moved forever from channel to channel without ever actually watching anything.  Bizarrely contorted depictions of work projects, bad knees, poop-eating dogs, art schools, collapsing sinkholes, novocaine injections, and Medicare cutoffs danced fitfully across the mental landscape to the soundtrack of The Flight of the Bumblebee.  I flipped back and forth on the bed like an over-cooked burger, looking dry-eyed at the clock and wishing I could just fall asleep.

But sometimes you can’t fall asleep, no matter how you try.  Whether it’s what you ate, or the unique combination of issues in your life at that particular hour on that particular day, or some other cause, blissful sleep simply will not come.  When that happens, I yield to the inevitable and shuffle downstairs rather than disturb Kish with my tossing and turning.  I plop down in front of the computer and scroll through the internet, moving quickly from the BBC to the Ozone to the Drudge Report to Facebook, from blogs to Twitter feeds to Facebook pages.  My grinding brain lacks the focus needed to read a book, but the little dips into the information world that the internet offers are perfectly suited to my mental state.

After a few hours, it’s time to feed and walk the dogs, and let the day begin.  Tonight I’ll try again.

Thank You, Internet

Occasionally I experience insomnia in the wee small hours.  Typically I will awaken in the 2:30-3 a.m. time frame, my mind churning away on some work-related issue.  Usually I know immediately whether a return to sleep is likely.  In those instances, after tossing and turning for a while and assuring myself that I will not, in fact, sink once more into peaceful slumber, I will throw in the towel and come downstairs to start the day.  Today was one of those days.

In these dark, quiet hours the internet is a godsend.  My brain is not yet quite ready for the continued attention and reflective attitude needed to really read a book, and the rich sampling options offered by the internet are perfectly suited to the mood.  Scrutinize some news websites to see whether anything significant has happened overnight, read a political column, check sports scores, get an Ohio State football recruiting update, flip to a blog or two, and before you know it the time has come for the morning walk.