When Sleep Is Out of the Question

When Sleep Is Out of the Question

It happens quickly and unexpectedly…

With all the good intentions in the world, you go to bed early, or slightly later than your usual time, thinking of all the possibilities that life will offer you by waking up early. As you position yourself comfortably in your bed, a relaxing sensation covers your entire body, signaling that a warm fall-into-sleep is on the horizon, and you will shift to the dream world almost in no time. You close your eyes, and if you happen to be listening to a soothing meditation, you notice that the voice fades away gently, now almost a kind whisper in your ear. Minutes pass by, and now without you even noticing it, you are welcome in a gentle sleep…

And then it happens! Suddenly you open your eyes, not because of hearing something, not because of your phone vibrating in the middle of the night, not because of… anything. With no viable explanation as to why your sleep has come to an end, you find yourself lying in your bed, much more wide-awake than you could possibly want at that moment. You think it’s a moment before you fall back into your peaceful sleep. You say to yourself that it’s possibly the coffee you had two hours before you went to bed. (Perhaps it is!) Nevertheless, the last thing that crosses your mind is the reality that you’ll spend the next thirty minutes trying to decide which is better: Forcefully keep your eyes closed in case that helps you fall back into sleep, or stare at the ceiling and see nothing anyway, since it’s pitch black in your bedroom.

Since I don’t have a medical background, and since I haven’t done extensive research on why the body decides, and in which situations to cut short a good night’s sleep, I can not pinpoint the exact reason why it happens. But I know this much: When you have an early rise planned ahead of you, the last thing you want at that moment is to look at that dark ceiling and contemplate why you are wide-awake. In fact, you are so wide-awake that in the upcoming afternoon, your body will envy the alertness you are in. Because roughly twelve hours from that moment, you will have lunch, followed by an afternoon drowsiness during which you body will beg you to take a short nap. Chances are, you won’t be able to do that. So you’ll keep asking your body: Since sleep is precious, why on earth did you wake yourself up in the middle of the night, instead of resting well for the day ahead?

Brain research shows that the human brain wants to have two kinds of sleeps during the day: A long one at night, and a short one in the afternoon. Now you know why that drowsiness kicks in around 3pm! John Medina, a molecular biologist with special research interest on how the brain functions, has this to say on the subject:

“Ever feel tired in the afternoon? That’s because your brain really wants to take a nap. There’s a battle raging in your head between two armies. Each army is made of legions of brain cells and biochemicals –- one desperately trying to keep you awake, the other desperately trying to force you to sleep. Around 3 p.m., 12 hours after the midpoint of your sleep, all your brain wants to do is nap.”

As I lay down in my dark bedroom, I wonder if somehow my body thinks that it’s actually the afternoon, it has fulfilled its short nap requirement and now it’s time to go back to work fully alert. No, you idiot, it’s not! Can’t you see that we are lying in total darkness here? It’s not even remotely 3pm and I know that you won’t remember this tomorrow, so you’ll ask for your afternoon nap anyway, completely disregarding the fact that you woke up in the middle of the night for nothing.

Well, I guess in such arguments, the body always wins and has the final say. In this case, it says that sleep is out of the question. So in situations like this, rather than keeping our eyes closed pretending to be sleeping, or staring at a dark, empty ceiling, we are actually presented with a third choice: Get up and do something. Small things, actually. I’m not talking about big stuff like cleaning the apartment, organizing your book shelf or sitting down to watch a 2 hour long movie. Rather, I mean small things like replying an email that you had postponed for the next day, reading a couple of pages more from your favorite book, or, you guessed it, writing your 1.000 words for the upcoming day. (More on that in this post.)

Some might argue that doing anything that involves more brain power than staring at an empty wall will actually stimulate the brain and push the possibility of going back to sleep further away. But in my case, it is not uncommon to find myself staring at the very same wall for two or three hours, in complete darkness of course, wondering when the next train for sleep will arrive. In such cases, I think those hours are complete waste that could be put to better work otherwise.

Of course, I’m not talking about situations where you easily fall back into sleep after couple of minutes. Those experiences are different, and I think you won’t even have much time or awareness to notice them as in those cases, you usually fall back into sleep pretty quickly.

Case in point, this blog post is the product of such an uncalled-for waking up. I even remember gently falling asleep tonight a short while ago, but at this very moment, sleep really seems to be out of question, replaced by full alertness. Only few weeks ago, I remember complaining to myself about having spent 4 hours straight looking at a dark, empty ceiling. Tomorrow I will look back at this moment and think that at least I have put it to some good use this time.

It’s 2:27am now. Let’s see when sleep will grace me with its presence again…

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