“I just can’t sleep.” How many times have we heard this complaint from family or friends? Perhaps, we have even uttered these words ourselves. Insomnia is a prevalent problem for at least one-third of the population, according to research. And it has been around for a long time. Even an ancient ecclesiastical writer like Clement of Alexandria once remarked, “God is incapable of weariness, and suffering, and want. But we who bear flesh need rest” (The Stromata, Book 6, Chapter 16). Those with insomnia have trouble finding that rest they need.
Insomnia may be defined as a “chronic inability to obtain adequate sleep” (Bootzin & Nicassio, 1978). Its chronic nature means that it is not a one-time occurrence, but a repeated pattern of being unable to enjoy proper sleep and rest. The symptoms are as prevalent and varied as the number and demographics affected by insomnia. In her dissertation entitled, “A Comparison of Three Cognitive Behavioral Treatments for Insomnia: Paradoxical Intention, Coping Imagery, and Sleep Information,” Lynn Petras Gould mentions three symptoms characteristic of insomnia which include sleep onset insomnia (referring to difficulty falling asleep), sleep maintenance insomnia (meaning difficulty maintaining sleep), and terminal insomnia (characterized by early morning awakening). Researchers have made these operational definitions about how much time needs to have passed for sleep difficulties to be characterized as insomnia. In order to set guidelines in studying and treating these symptoms, they have decided that sleep onset insomnia and sleep maintenance insomnia are present after a 30-minute or more lag in falling asleep or in awakening after only 30 minutes or so, while terminal insomnia is present when one wakes up after less than 6 ½ hours of sleep. Of these insomnia varieties, the most prevalent is sleep onset insomnia (Roth, Kramer, & Lutz, 1976), which is also the easiest to measure and has become the most popular subject of research study.
Along with these chief symptoms of chronic insomnia there are widely-held public perceptions that make insomnia difficult to properly treat. First, many believe insomnia is not a medical problem and will go away on its own. Second, others believe the only answer is sleeping pills. According to Alfonso Marino’s dissertation, “Treating Chronic Insomnia: A Cognitive-Behavioral Group Therapy Approach,” “It has been reported that up to 80% of individuals with insomnia treated with medication in the past re-emerge years later with the same problem (Morin, 1993). This suggests that on its own, medication is not an effective mode of treatment for many individuals with chronic insomnia.”
In addition to the prevalence of insomnia in the general population, the effects of insomnia are multiple and varied. Insomnia affects health, mood, performance, and relationships. It is the most frequent medical complaint after pain, yet remains untreated in 80% of the sufferers. According to Marino’s dissertation, “In clinical practice, it has been reported that insomnia sufferers seek treatment after enduring the problem for an average of 12 years” (Morin, Sonte, McDonald, & Jones, 1992).
Insomnia, like many other disorders, affects every aspect of life including cognitive functioning, physical issues such as high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, emotional difficulties such as depression and anxiety as well as social relationships and the spiritual life.
With this introduction in mind, I would like to set out on a new series that, if successful, might put some of my readers to sleep, which in this case will not be such a bad thing. Like our past series on Type A personality pattern, chronic pain, compulsive buying, and anger management , here too, we will try to follow the patristic approach in dealing with problems or passions. In other words, even as they would first look at a passion carefully, describe it in detail, and then with the help of God, consider what to do in order to attain to the corresponding virtue, so we will try to do something similar with this issue using both the findings of present day research on the subject and the wisdom of the fathers that so often can beautifully balance and deepen modern practices. Insomnia is a complex problem with many causes, many features, many myths, and many non-pharmaceutical ways to deal with it. I think it is worth looking at them, so that we might sleep in peace and arise refreshed to do the will of God.