Food for Thought

Yawn: Some Thoughts About Sleep

Are you experiencing middle of the night sleeplessness when you'd hoped or expected to sleep a solid 8 hours or more? Do you toss and turn, trying to return to sleep and fail to do so? And does this make you feel anxious, worried or even panicked? If so, you might be interested in the information that follows.

Many of my patients start their therapy sessions with a frustrated report of some form of a "bad nights' sleep". When people are very troubled by their relationship to sleep, the worry about this can trigger anxiety. This leads to yet more sleeplessness, creating greater anxiety and more sleeplessness, in a never-ending cycle of sleeplessness and anxiety about sleeplessness.

Because this concern is so worrisome - and so common - I began to read about sleep and the history of sleep. I was really interested to discover that prior to around the mid 1800's, and up until then over the entire course of recorded history, when sleep was mentioned, it was mostly referred to in terms of "first" and "second" - i.e., segmented - sleep. Pre-1840 or so people, through-out the world and across cultures, typically went to bed around two hours after dusk, slept for 4 hours or so, awakened, and then remained awake for a couple of hours before resuming sleep, again for about 4 hours before beginning their ordinary day. During the two or so hours between the first and second sleep, people engaged in all kinds of activities...including eating, socializing, having sex, reading, working and so on.

Most of our behaviors originated as survival strategies and segmented sleep is no exception. Our species has prevailed over millenniums due to early participation in a tribe in which our lives depended on taking turns listening outside the cave during the night for potential marauders both human and animal. This survival need likely left us evolutionarily hard-wired for the 4-hour segments of sleep we needed in order to stay alert during our turn on watch.

The pattern of a first and second sleep gradually changed to what we now consider normal, which is to sleep - or, I should say, attempt to sleep - for 8 hours at a stretch, something many people fail to do. There are a number of explanations given for this, including improvements in street and domestic lighting and the proliferation of coffee houses, all of which enabled an enjoyment of "night life", leading to a later bedtime and consolidation of the hours allotted to sleep.

Consider that the practice of 8-hour consecutive sleep has been in fashion for less than 200 years, and that's in the entire history of mankind. Is it any wonder that so many of us suffer from disrupted body rhythms? Think about this the next time you are worried about middle of the night sleeplessness, and bear in mind that this may simply be evidence of your healthy, ancestral bio-rhythms. And consider about the possibility of just going with it.

For those of you wanting to know more: