A couple of mornings ago my partner remarked during breakfast “that was the most restful night of non-sleep I’ve had in a while”. Neither of us have been sleeping well for awhile, compounded by the anxieties and fears related to coronavirus. I asked her how that happened and she said
“I just kind of gave in to it I guess”. And it turns out that seemingly effortless act is the key to better quality rest during these strange new days.
The persistence of sleeplessness had caused me to try to be funny about it with some friends parodying my end of the day routine starting with the dramatic announcement of “I’m going up” at the end of the evening through the routine of preparing for bed and the part about lying down for the first of many times with pillows just right and my book, beginning the charade of “trying to fall asleep”. In the coronavirus era of being told to ‘get lots of sleep now’ and ‘keep to your usual sleep wake times’ it was pretty funny and it seems everyone is having trouble sleeping right now. Yikes. There are many reasons of course. And during sleeplessness it’s hard not to revisit previous conversations, actions and behaviors, anticipate subsequent events and ruminate on “what ifs” and generally try to fill in the gaps between those thoughts with proactive “to do and to care for” items and people. This is definitely not good. Even in my sleeplessness I feel unworthy because I am not getting up and being productive as we are being urged to be. None of this helps sleep so we all continue in this cycle of wakefulness.
But then while mindlessly scrolling through social media I came across a shared post on my niece Julia’s page. It was from a trauma psychologist acquaintance who lives in Beirut, Lebanon, Dr. Alaa Hijazi. Dr. Hijazi was talking about taking care of ourselves during this worldwide time of sheltering, reduced human contact and presumed productivity.
“I thought I was spared the horrid "motivational" phrase going around now "If you don't come out of this with a new skill, you never lacked time, you lacked discipline" until I saw it on my local yoga studio page.
As a trauma psychologist, I am utterly… horrified, enraged, and bewildered about how people can believe and spread this phrase in good conscience.
We are going through a collective trauma, that is bringing up profound grief, loss, panic over livelihoods, panic over loss of lives of loved ones. People's nervous systems are barely coping with the sense of threat and vigilance for safety, or alternating with feeling numb and frozen and shutting down in response to it all.
People are trying to survive poverty, fear, retriggering of trauma, retriggering of other mental health difficulties. Yet, someone has the nerve to accuse someone of lack of discipline for not learning a new skill, and by a yoga teacher!
This cultural obsession with [capitalistic] "productivity" and always spending time in a "productive" "fruitful" way is absolutely maddening.
What we need is more self compassion, more gentle acceptance of all the difficult emotions coming up for us now, more focus on gentle ways to soothe ourselves and our pain and the pain of loved ones around us, not a whipping by some random fucker making us feel worse about ourselves in the name of "motivation".
Those words were so brilliant and freeing and enabling. It’s ok to be unable to produce, to un-stick myself, let alone pivot to new business model or just be a better me.
I had no idea until I read those words how heavy this pressure is and I am one privileged person with very singular responsibilities, I cannot appreciate the complexity of this for many other folks.
A week earlier after a particularly bad night I reread the chapter on sleep and sleep stress in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living. I hadn’t yet put that chapter in its place in my head but now it became clearer to me also. In Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn talks about not fighting the sleep loss and dissociating from the elevated status we place on what sleep is and should be. For me, it makes sense to compare it to a conversation I have with patients about rethinking their chronic pain. My paraphrase of the chapter is to accept that there will be sleeplessness, it is part of the new (ab)normal and guess what, full function can still occur when you free yourself from ruminating on the failure of checking the 7 or 8-hour box (or god forbid all the subtle pre-coronavirus humble bragging people do about how little sleep they need). Kabat-Zinn closes the chapter by saying “It will teach you a lot about yourself if you worry less about losing sleep and instead pay more attention to being fully awake”. The things I was perseverating on while trying to force sleep were the same failure to be productive, to be advancing, to be improving my current state.
So how do these 2 things fit to make me sleep better or just lie still in a more relaxed way?
I appreciated being permitted not to grow right now, to not be teaching myself to sew or repainting my basement. That what we are all experiencing is in fact tragic, scary, and traumatizing and that for each of us that trauma is wildly different, not even including how it is for those personally experiencing the virus. Allowing myself to be the anxious freak-show I can sometimes be, to not be counseled or counseling, was super freeing and something was lifted away from me. It would be nice if I could have just told myself that my inability to accelerate right now was ok, but my DNA requires permission for that type of thing, perhaps you do too? But, via Dr. Hijazi I am offering you permission to be idle. I also was able to tangibly feel no worse, in fact better, than previous nights despite not having deep, minimally interrupted sleep. And in the morning, convinced I was just as good as always, I acted better and felt happier, and was less worried. I still need more sleep but this is just how it is right now and that’s ok.
There’s no magic elixir in this blog, no steps to make this work for you, we're all in this thing together very differently. I feel thankful to have found Dr. Hijazi’s statement along with Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s writing again and hope sharing both might give you permission to tap the brakes, to sit and stare blankly, to accomplish something or nothing and perhaps even to have an enjoyable night of semi sleep in your future.
Link to Dr. Alaa Hijazi’s website here.
Link to Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn here.
Hang on, this too shall pass.