The maxim “our thoughts determine our lives” is central to our self-understanding as well as our ability to understand the choices we make each day. Thoughts are the interpretive tool through which we understand ourselves, others, and the circumstances of daily life. When these thoughts are good and wholesome, we are able to make critical decisions in the workplace, assist family members, and order our life according to the values by which we have consciously chosen to live. However, when these cognitions are harmful, our perceptions of self, others, and our environment become distorted which often leads to errors in our behavior or our perceptions of others’ actions. This is also true in terms of the cognitive role in achieving proper sleep and overcoming insomnia.
The scientific literature concerning the problem of insomnia is quite clear that our thoughts affect our ability to achieve sleep. Alfonso Marino has noted, “Going to bed with a racing mind will (sic) almost guarantee you disturbed sleep, if any. This anxiety reinforces that you were not able to sleep, which then causes further anxiety, which then perpetuates your inability to sleep. It’s a vicious cycle. Cognitive strategies try to help you to deal with your worrisome preoccupations and aim to replace them with calmness. The person who lies in bed and is constantly tossing, turning, and cursing that they cannot sleep, and “I’m going to be a wreck tomorrow!”, will (sic) only be perpetuating further anxiety, making sleep that much more difficult. Cognitive interventions try to focus on what patients think and tell themselves and correct irrational ‘catastrophizing’ thoughts with calming ones.”
The good news is that we can achieve some mastery over our cognitive life. We are not automatically enslaved by our thoughts. We have the ability to reject those harmful thoughts such as “I’m going to be a wreck tomorrow!” and replace that cognition with truths from Holy Scripture such as “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phillipians 4:13) With this truth from Scripture, Saint Athanasios the Great was able to say, “If tribulation comes, I shall endure it; if persecution comes, I shall be a martyr; if famine comes, the Word will nourish me” (On the Song of Songs, PG 27.1349). Certainly with that same thought, those suffering from insomnia can say, “If a sleepless night comes, I shall face the day!”
In writing about this process, Marino lays out a set of vignettes in which he names the dysfunctional cognition, the underlying belief, the cognitive errors in the underlying belief, and interventions or alternative interpretations. For the purposes of illustration, I will cite one of these. In “Vignette 7” Marino tackles the issue of “Diminished Control over Sleep and Performance Anxiety”:
Dysfunctional Cognition: “I am afraid of losing control over my sleep abilities. I have lost control over my sleep.”
Underlying Belief: “It is essential to be in full control of all aspects of one’s life.”
Cognitive Errors: catastrophizing, irrational belief
Interventions/Alternative Interpretations: “1) What is the worst thing that could happen if you never got to sleep tonight?
It is not catastrophic to go without sleep. 2) The harder you try to control sleep, the less control you will achieve; it is much easier to force wakefulness than to fall asleep at will. 3) Sleep will come more easily if you do not try so hard to control it.
These vignettes demonstrate the importance and value of determining and examining one’s thoughts. The holy fathers have recommended this practice for centuries and for good reason-no progress can be made if we are unaware of our thoughts and the underlying beliefs associated with them. Using Marino’s vignette as an example, once we recognize the thought and acknowledge its underlying belief about control, it becomes much easier to perceive the cognitive error and seek out alternative interpretations. The battle has to be engaged at the level of cognition, not action. Too often, those suffering from insomnia attempt to act before examining their thought patterns. Yet it is the thought patterns that exacerbate the insomnia in the first place.
“Chronic insomnia is seen as a symptom of a breakdown in coping and in adaptation. Emotional arousal is seen as being precipitated by unexamined, unresolved emotional conflicts.” (Marino, p.128) This is true for all conflicts and issues we confront in life, including insomnia. These emotional conflicts arise from dysfunctional cognitions which include catastrophizing, irrational beliefs, and misattribution, and absolute thinking.
For the Christian, the weapons of prayer and watchfulness play an indispensable role in coping with thoughts. Saint Theophan the Recluse writes, “Strive to keep in order your thoughts about worldly concerns. Try to arrive at a state in which your body can carry out its usual work, while leaving you free to be always with the Lord in spirit. The merciful Lord will give you freedom from cares, and where this freedom prevails everything is done in its own time, and nothing is a worry or a burden. Seek, ask-and it will be given.” (Art of Prayer, p. 237)
The goal of resolving cognitive dysfunctions is ultimately much greater than achieving restorative sleep. The goal is freedom from all those things that enslave us. In the words of Saint Paul, the ultimate goal is found in his words to the Romans, “Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” As Saint Irenaeus echoes Saint Paul in writing, “For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God” (AH 4.20.7). This puts all our thoughts into a proper perspective, which in itself grants us peace.