I once knew a middle-aged man who claimed that he had been the victim of insomnia since the age of 20, and was convinced that it had not impaired his health at all. He declared, with some show of conviction, that he had not exceeded four hours of sleep a night during that time.
He usually went to bed at 10 to 10:30, and fell asleep about 12. He usually woke up at two, turned on his bed light and read until about 3:30, when he went to sleep again; he woke up at 5:30. Then he lay quietly and composed a work on philosophy, or repeated to himself what he had read during the night, until 6:30 or 7, when he arose.
He emphasized two things in his experience. One was that he had made up his mind long before not to allow his insomnia to do him any harm. The other was that although he did not get much sleep, he got just as much rest in the 24 hours as anybody else.
The first part of the treatment of insomnia is to convince oneself that those two propositions are true. If you know that the insomnia will not harm you, and that the rest will be just as valuable as sleep itself, more than half the battle is won, because more than half the trouble with insomnia is fear. Fear of insomnia.
Actually, to overcome insomnia and restore proper hours of sleep is partly a matter of mental treatment and partly physical.
For the physical part it is comforting to know that all the common-sense things we have always assumed to be true, have been proved so by science.
The bedroom is important. Colors, such as blue and green, have a quieting effect. Red, orange and yellow are exciting. Glass painters using cobalt blue often fall asleep at their work.
Noise is the most sensitive threshold conditioner of sleep.
The bed should be wide enough to permit of muscular relaxation. The most important thing about the bed is its size. A bed may be too soft and increase the accumulation of bodily heat, giving a sense of suffocation that is not restful. Coil springs are better than link springs.
The air of the bedroom should be in motion and should be cool to cold.
Two ELEMENTS IN INSOMNIA REAL, IMAGINARY EFFECTS
A great physician, on his deathbed, turned to the three doctors who were attending him and said, “I am going myself, but I leave behind me the three greatest healers in the world.” His colleagues looked at one another with becoming pride and appeared to be deeply moved at this expression which seemed so flattering, until the dying doctor caught his breath and completed his sentence, “water, food and sleep.”
To insomnia as a disease entity, there always are two elementswhat the insomnia does to the patient by itself and what the patient thinks it does.
What the patient thinks insomnia does may not only make the insomnia much worse, but even be responsible for three-quarters of the harm it actually accomplishes.
This is not to say that lack of sleep is harmless. It has been shown that there are very definite body changes which accompany lack of sleep and which certainly indicate an unhealthy bodily condition.
These changes are of several kinds. Nervous reactions, in general, are less rapid and less accurate after an insufficient sleep period.
There is a difference in blood pressure between those who have had a bad night and a good one. The longer you are asleep, the lower the blood pressure.
The amount of energy one expends after insufficient sleep is wastefulfor more energy is used than is necessary after insufficient sleep, as determined by the amount of energy expended in doing the same stint by a person who has had sufficient sleep.
As Professor Laird, who made these experiments, says, “Lack of sleep takes a real pound of flesh.”
But it cannot be said that the experiments are applicable to insomnia. They were performed on human subjects who were waked up at intervals to have the tests made. They were not victims of insomnia. They were all sound sleepers and could have gone right back to sleep if let alone.
The patient with insomnia, on the other hand, seems to be a person whose nature does not demand sleep. It is doubtful if insomniacs would respond in the same way. It is doubtful if tests would show that insomnia produces harmful bodily reactions.
Most insomniacs sleep more than they think they do. People who say, “Doctor, I haven’t slept a wink in two weeks,” are plainly not strictly veracious. And the experiments just cited proved that a stretch of four hours’ sleep gave all the bodily rest that could be pro-cured from sleep at one time. (Professor Laird thinks that two four-hour stretches in the 24 hours are necessary.)
Insomnia itself, probably for the reason that the patients do get four-hour sleep periods, does not produce any definite disease, mental or physical. If the patient can be convinced of that, it will do more than anything else, both to cure the insomnia and also to keep it from doing any damage.