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Self-Knowledge • Mood

The Role of Sleep in Mental Health

Part of the reason why many of us have a tangled and unhelpful relationship to sleep can be traced back to the way we first learnt about the subject many years ago. Parents of small children tend to be very careful about bedtimes. They favour early nights, they give their babies plenty of naps throughout the day, they think a lot about black-out curtains, they are quick to diagnose many instances of bad temper as stemming from a background deficit of rest and while they may be indulgent in some areas, they are likely to be entirely implacable in any negotiation over routines: seven p.m. lights out, no ifs ands or buts.

None of this is remotely altruistic: tired small children are a nightmare to look after. Every reversal becomes a drama, every disappointment turns into a catastrophe and every excitement shifts into mania. A half-way decent adult existence is impossible alongside a tired child. Self-interest necessitates totalitarianism.

But while a draconian philosophy is useful in the early years, it can set up an awkward dynamic in an off-spring’s mind as adolescence sets in. Growing up and asserting one’s independence and individuality can then become associated with a newly defiant and cavalier approach to bedtimes. Not for a newly empowered young adult the strictures and denying rules of the past. Why bother to put the light out by ten or even midnight or one in the morning, given that one is so obviously no longer a toddler? Given that one has no more use of nappies, why would one need to worry that one was still finishing something on the computer as the first signs of dawn appeared in the eastern sky? 

What is thereby missed is how much every adult shares in a young child’s sensitivity to a shortfall of sleep. Just like our younger selves, we do not have an impregnable command over a reasonable view of our own prospects or condition. There are many different ways of telling the story of our lives, ranging from an optimistic tale of progress mixed with noble defeats to a tragic narrative of thorough-going stupidity and unforgivable errors. What can determine the difference between madness and sanity may be nothing grander, but then again nothing more critical, than how long our minds have been allowed to lie on a pillow in the preceding hours. 

It’s especially unfortunate that this connection is so easy to miss. No bells go off in our minds warning us that we are running low on nocturnal nectar; there are probably no parents around any more to nag us up to our rooms; plenty of well-meaning friends will invite us out for evenings that begin at nine p.m.; our screens never fail to have something new and interesting to tell us at every hour – and no stylish or authoritative figures in the public realm ever seem to urge us to turn in early or proudly show off their cautious bedtime routines. Being meticulous about sleep seems like something only a very dull and defeated person would care about.

As a result, we start to believe many dark things with doomful ease: that our relationship is over, that everyone hates us, that our lives are meaningless and that human existence is a cosmic joke ‘When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago,’ knew Friedrich Nietzsche. We go mad from tiredness long before we notice the role of exhaustion in stealing our sanity.

We need to recover some of the wisdom of our early years. We may be a sizeable height, holding down an important job and capable of making impressive speeches, but where it counts in our resilience to emotional chaos, we are no more robust than a very young infant. Whenever we sense our spirits sinking and folly and anxiety pressing in on us, we should abandon all endeavours and head to the bedroom. We should be as proud of our regimented sleep patterns as we are about a neat house or a flourishing career. 

Underpinning our care should be modesty. While thinking through our problems is crucial to our health, to attempt to think without enough sleep is worse than not thinking at all. The thinking we do when tired is vindictive and sloppy. It misses important details, it gives the advantage over to our enemies, it hands victory to the evangelists of sadness. It isn’t a disrespect to the power of the mind to insist that we should not attempt to fire up this machine unless and until it has been adequately restored to health – like a powerful rocket or exquisite motorboat that one wouldn’t dare to activate unless we could be sure of a clear sky or a calm sea. 

Understanding our vulnerability, we should never take seriously any worry that suddenly appears extremely pressing after ten in the evening. What we panic about in the early hours should automatically be discounted. No large conversation or argument should ever be undertaken past nine o’clock. 

Being careful doesn’t just apply to the night. At varied points in the day, when we are overwhelmed, we should know to stop and hoist the white flag. It may look as if we should keep trying to fight our demons. In fact, we need to elide them with a nap. We may feel guilty, but it is lazier and more irresponsible to try to keep going than it is to know the game is up for now. There is never anything shameful in admitting one can’t cope. It’s this very knowledge that guarantees us a chance to fight another round soon. Many a crisis could have been avoided by a timely siesta.

When we lie in bed, it makes sense to think of ourselves as akin to a smaller, furry mammal, a rabbit or perhaps a squirrel. We should lift our knees up very close to our chests and pull the duvet over our heads. We might soak a whole patch of the pillow with our tears. We should – metaphorically – stroke our own weary foreheads as a loving adult might once have done. Grown-up life is intolerably hard and we should be allowed to know and lament this. 

We shouldn’t feel weird in our weepy squirrel position. Other people go to immense lengths to hide that they do, or would like to do, the very same sort of thing. We need to know someone extremely well – better than we know 99% of humanity – before they will let us in on the scale of their despair and anxiety and their longings for a cosy, safe nook. It looks child-like but it is in fact the essence of adulthood to recognise, and give space for, one’s regressive tendencies.

What the curled squirrel position indicates is that not all mental problems can be solved by active reasoning. Not thinking consciously should also be deemed a part of the mind’s work. Being curled up in bed allows our minds to do a different sort of thinking, the sort that can take place when we are no longer impatiently looking for results, when the usual hectoring conscious self takes a break and lets the mind do what it will for a time. It is then, paradoxically, that certain richer, more creative ideas can have the peace and freedom to coalesce – as they may do when we are out for a walk in the countryside or idling while having a drink in a cafe. Thinking isn’t what we do best when it’s all we’re meant to do. 

There remain plenty of reasons to live. We simply may not be able to see them until we have allowed ourselves the privilege of a weepy nap or a long night’s sleep.

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