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I crave deep oblivious sleep

Shakespeare called it ‘the balm of hurt minds’: sleep is indeed a healing balm, and crucial to good mental health.

Like many who suffer from depression, insomnia was the way the illness started for me. When anxious, I have trouble getting to sleep, trouble with waking in the night, and trouble waking up too early. I crave the deep, oblivious sleep that helps keep my Black Dog at bay. When we don’t get enough sleep, the emotional centre of the brain becomes more active. This is particularly unfortunate if you suffer from anxiety and depression. Manageable fears become terrifying obsessions.

The reassuring news is that learning to sleep is a skill like any other. But it’s a skill you can probably only acquire as you start to get better. When I was in the grip of acute depression, there was nothing for it but to take sleeping pills. My psychiatrist helped me understand that not sleeping very much is not the problem. The danger is worrying about it. That is what can stop you from sleeping and make you ill. Our bodies are cleverer than our minds. When we are truly tired, we will fall asleep. Sleeping is a natural action. You don’t have to do anything to get to sleep. It is not humanly possible to stay awake forever. But the one topic that mustn’t be on one’s list of worries is sleep itself. It is the ultimate paradox: to achieve sleep, you have to abandon the imperative to achieve it.

Step one, then, is to stop being anxious about sleep itself. I had to start believing that in due course I would get the sleep I needed, though it might not always be conveniently at night, and I needed to arrange my life as far as I could to make this possible. Meanwhile, if I am awake at night, I need to make it feel normal as opposed to frightening. I now try to enjoy lying awake in the dark with my feelings, even going a step further and contemplating that I am awake for a reason and it is safe to be so. I practise breathing techniques: every outbreath should contain a negative thought, every inbreath a positive one. I try to meet my own needs for reassurance and calm, to have a conversation with the scared person who is sweating at four o’clock in the morning. I imagine that I am soothing a frightened child.

So my dual approach to tempering my fears is partly to accept them, and partly to change the story running in my head. I also believe in taking more practical steps and practise what doctors now call good ‘sleep hygiene’. All the clichéd approaches help: a completely dark room (I put up blinds); a milky drink (dairy products are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that also acts as a hypnotic); doing nothing too stimulating before bed (a wind-down routine); and going to bed at roughly the same time every night. It wasn’t as though I didn’t know about such approaches. The difference is that now I rigorously put them into action. Here’s hoping your hurt mind receives the balm of a good night.

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