Can't sleep?

4235941882_fd8af7d5e1_bAt different times in my life I’ve had difficulty sleeping. Here are some lessons I’ve learned, based on the apparent cause of awakeness.

Cause 1 – something left undone. This is called the Zeigarnik Effect … your mind won’t let you forget until you do something. Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that waiters at a Paris sidewalk cafe had perfect memory of every aspect of a customer’s order … until they had paid, when the memories left their mind. Therefore, when we take some action which completes a task, it is able to sink out of sight. Until then, it sticks in our mind, clamoring for attention. So … do something so that you have a feel of closure. Typically this is writing it out on a piece of paper … if you aren’t comfortable turning so that you can write something while in bed, you could dictate it into a small recorder – but writing seems to work best.

Cause 2 – physical pain. Two approaches here. #1 – face it, be aware of it, be “mindful” as in Zen attention. Jon Kabat-Zin has used mindfulness meditation as the director of a hospital clinic.

Approach #2 – leave it behind and go for a walk in fantasy. A Navy dentist taught my dad this in 1945 – suggested he imagine going for a walk in one of his most favorite places while the dentist worked. My dad began to imagine walking through the woods on Stein’s Hill near his boyhood home … and it worked. For the rest of his life, he never used medication for pain during a visit to the dentist. Perhaps there’s a place you would like to revisit? A day you would like to relive? Or something you would like to experience for the first time?

Cause 3 – your mind is busy. So give it something to pay attention to while your body relaxes. I enjoy listening to audiobooks with earbuds. As my mind listens to the words, my body begins to fall asleep, and eventually my mind joins it. If I turn my head and the ear buds fall out, the sound is not so high as to disturb my wife’s sleep.

Two suggestions – listen to nonfiction. You could leave the news or talk radio on all night, or the television set. But eventually the topic might become something violent or anxiety producing … especially if the television is broadcasting a crime drama, which is intended to create anxiety for the characters as a means to get your attention. That anxiety can wake you up, give you bad dreams – or the story might just become so interesting that you can’t fall asleep.

Second suggestion: you are basically self hypnotizing yourself. So don’t listen to something that you would later be hearing while driving a car, or you might fall asleep.

I enjoy information, but others might enjoy music. A recording of slow, soothing classical music might be just what you need. Or your phone or Kindle might have an app which creates soothing sounds, like surf, rain or birds singing. If I have a busy mind, this is not enough to distract me. Another possibility: if you have that soothing classical music playing in the background, you can speak over it into an audio recorder and create a recording or affirmations and thanksgivings with the music in the background.

Cause 4 – you’re not sleepy. Laying in bed wide awake can become a habit if you try to do it when you are not sleepy. If you are awake past a certain time, perhaps it’s wiser to do something to relax, read a bit, and let your mind reset.

Finally, I’ve found that prayer is helpful, especially when I begin with a reminder to myself of the first step. Often I’ll pray something like: “Lord Jesus, I am powerless over my difficulty going to sleep. I give you my life, which includes this night, and ask that I would experience all the sleep that I truly need.” There is something in that yielding which creates the conditions for sleep for me.



The photo is by “coreycam” courtesy of the Flickr Creative Commons license at

Zeigarnik effect:

Jon Kabat-Zin:


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