By Karen O’Connor
Have you ever been desperate for a good night’s sleep? That was my state off and on for years. I remembered my mother talking about how she walked the floors at night and then headed to the kitchen for a cup of warm milk and a graham cracker to help her get back to sleep. I don’t like either of those items, so I never tried them.
And yet I know, as we all do, that sleep is essential for a person’s health and well-being—a fact many of us ignore, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). Millions of people do not get enough sleep and many suffer from the lack.
I found I am not alone. There are plenty of people pacing in the dark or tossing and turning when they should be sleeping.
For a while I relied on melatonin, a hormone found naturally in the body, but when used as medicine it’s made synthetically in a laboratory and sold over the counter at any pharmacy. It can help regulate sleep and wake cycles, especially as we age and our hormone levels drop. But after a while melatonin didn’t work for me as well as it had.
Breath of Life
Then one day a few years ago I received some advice from a friend in the medical field that made a real difference. He suggested deep breathing, one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. This exercise sends a message to the brain that says, in effect, “Calm down and relax.” Breathing exercises are easy to learn and are useful tools to help conquer interrupted sleep.
You can practice them whenever you want, and they don’t require any special equipment. Your doctor can suggest some that would be right for you and you can also locate a selection on the Internet. Try different ones to see which work best for you.
Here’s an exercise that helps me every night now that I’ve tried it and had success. It is especially useful whenever I’m experiencing upsetting thoughts, pain, or stress—day or night.
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take a deep breath in, making sure the hand on the abdomen rises higher than the one on the chest to insure the diaphragm is pulling air into the bottom of the lungs.
Exhale through your mouth and then breathe in slowly through your nose, pretending you’re taking in all the air in the room. Hold it for a count of five to seven, no higher.
Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. As the air releases, gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely evacuate the remaining air. We deepen respirations not by inhaling more air but by exhaling it completely.
Repeat the cycle three or four more times for a total of five deep breaths and try to breathe at a rate of one breath every ten seconds. You’ll notice your heart rate increase, producing a positive effect on cardiac health.
Once you feel comfortable with this technique, you may want to incorporate short prayers that will enhance the exercise. For example I say with each inhalation: “Come Holy Spirit and bring me rest.” And with each exhalation I say: “Please remove all sleeplessness (or stress or pain).” The idea is to invite God’s Spirit to be with you as you inhale, and as you exhale, releasing the troubling thought or action.
Some people consider such techniques nonsense. They’d rather sip a glass of wine or stay up so late at night that they literally fall into bed exhausted. Neither one is effective in the long run and may result in alcohol dependency or chronic fatigue.
Good News About a Good Night’s Sleep
Some people simply resign themselves to insomnia or restless sleep, but you don’t have to. Once you achieve regular sleep habits, you have much to gain.
According to WebMD you can look forward to some surprising benefits that you might not have associated with sleep. They include:
• Better overall health. Even one extra hour of sleep at night can thwart some serious health problems such as heart disease, heart attacks, diabetes, and obesity.
• More satisfying marital intimacy. When you’re rested you have more energy and more time and interest to maintain the closeness you and your spouse want and deserve.
• Fewer aches and pains. We’d all welcome this benefit. Sufficient rest may not eliminate your pain, but it can make it bearable and even lessen it. There are also medications available now that combine pain relief and a sleep aid so your body can enjoy a full night of sleep without pain robbing you of the rest you need.
• Balanced emotions. “When you’re overtired, you’re more likely to snap at your boss, or burst into tears, or start laughing uncontrollably,” said Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, a professor of psychology at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and author of Sleep Deprived No More. Sleep helps you maintain a good attitude and avoid mood swings.
• Clear thinking. When you’re fuzzy-headed from lack of sleep, you generally cannot think straight or make wise decisions.
• Appropriate weight. Lack of sleep can also contribute to weight gain through midnight snacking, midday food fests to stay awake, and generally eating fatty and sugary foods that spike energy but lead to a letdown.
• Less risk of injury. When you get plenty of rest you’re less apt to fall asleep at the wheel, drive into a ditch, run a red light, or fall from a ladder, due to the foggy brain that occurs when you lack sufficient sleep.
God’s Remedy for Sleeplessness
In all my research, however, to me the most important answers to sleeplessness are spiritual. Prior to this discovery, I had tried most of the conventional suggestions: keep regular hours, don’t eat too close to bedtime, avoid using electronics before bed, listen to music, use a sleep mask to darken your surroundings, write down your fears and set them aside, and so on. But the one solution that topped all the rest came from Scripture.
“When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet” (Proverbs 3:24).
I have made this verse a regular nightly prayer. And when worry about my children, my job, household bills, my husband’s health issues, or the state of our world poke my mind at night, I remember the power I have to change my thinking. “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
With that knowledge to guide me, I see that the best “sleep medicine” is from God’s Word. So now I recommend and practice the following suggestions when I climb into bed each night:
1. Browse verses from the Bible that will quiet your mind and soothe your soul:
• “Your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:10).
• “The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand” (121:5).
2. Read a brief meditation or devotion from a trusted author. Suggestions: My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers; Morning and Evening by Charles Spurgeon.
3. Do the abdominal deep breathing exercise described previously.
4. Listen to worship songs or classical music.
If you need further help, meet with a certified therapist or spiritual leader with whom you can talk over your problems to find solutions to the situations that are causing you to lose sleep.
Christians have the privilege and the opportunity, by the Lord’s invitation, to cast our cares on him instead of on ourselves (1 Peter 5:7). And keep in mind, always, that worry and fear exhaust the power that God gives us to face and deal with our daily problems. When we call on him we can lay our head on the pillow at night, trusting that our sleep will be sweet.
Karen O’Connor is a freelance writer from Watsonville, California (www.karenoconnor.com).