How weird is it that every so often we just STOP – stop moving, stop noticing anything or feeling anything, stop worrying or crying. We just go completely offline for sometimes many hours every day!
And we purposely choose to enter this potentially dangerous state, regularly, where we are vulnerable to accident or injury, exposure to danger such as fires, falls or heavy blows.
And after a certain time elapses, we come alive again, often feeling better for the downtime, and plan for it all to happen again.
While we sleep we start to gain on the daily wear and tear to all our body parts. We get busy healing and regenerating, fixing micro-blowouts in blood vessels, replacing damaged and use-by cells, rinsing and resetting used muscles, and generally undergoing maintenance. Our digestion ramps up while we are asleep, allowing us to process the bulk of the day’s food intake, and harvest the energy and the building materials from our diet, so when we wake we are often ready to discard the unneeded end products. In youth, our hormones work while we sleep, busy making us grow, setting up for reproduction and fine-tuning our metabolism.
Unless you are a jellyfish, or a sponge, you are stuck with this necessary vulnerability every day of your life. All other animals, even crabs and insects slow down to a torpid state, if not exactly sleep as we know it.
Our sleep needs to be interruptible, for our individual and group safety. We can override our need to sleep if we have to, but it’s not what we like to do. (Unless you are a teenager out with friends!)
The evolution of sleep meant that some of us stayed awake while most slept, and that these night owls kept watch for the rising river, or the prowling wolf. Some did this every night, and were happy to sleep when everyone else was awake. Young mothers often find they sleep lightly. They need to hear a child’s cough through a brick wall, breast-comfort a teething baby, or tend to a snuffle or a tumble. We learned to sleep under the bed-cover of the darkness – some protection from hungry predators.
Sleep routines developed which have by and large served us well over our evolution thus far.
As we get older we don’t need the same physical downtime as when we were kids. We’ve stopped growing, our metabolism has slowed down, and we don’t need as much food either. Not to mention needing to empty our bladders – the kidneys age as well, and are just not as good at concentrating the urine. (Maybe this is why the elders of the tribe got the sentry duty?) So at 70 your sleep is about half as long as when you were 17. Four hours versus eight plus, and longer on weekends!
Even more amazing is what the mind does during sleep. Ann Faraday wrote a book called “Dream Power” which still sheds some light on the hidden agenda of our dreams. She describes a processing of the day’s events, and mental classification and filing of all the detail, sometimes brought to our conscious mind’s attention when we recall our dreams. A fascinating field, and sometimes you can get important messages from your subconscious when you recall your dreams. My great grandmother dreamed how to ice skate, and when she woke, she could!
For many, sleep is a blessed relief from the immediate experience of pain. Physical pain, or mental pain, perhaps from depression, guilt, unfinished business, a life of trauma or very commonly, loneliness. While you are asleep you don’t have to deal with worries or dread, and only your dreams can make you cry.
It goes without saying that it’s better to address the causes of the pain rather than have to go unconscious to avoid it.
Your GP is can give you expert help and advice, and get help for you from other professionals with these matters. If you think your sleep is not what it should be, talk to your doctor. Sometimes medication can help, but plenty of drugs can alter your conscious state from awake to sleep at the cost of dependency, and of tachyphylaxis; a great word which means you need more of the medication to get the same effect as time goes on, eventually it doesn’t work at all.
Drugs that alter your sleep pattern are best used sparingly and only for the time needed for adjustment. Drug dependency is all too common with such medications and although it may be the lesser of evils, is yet an evil personally for you, and generally for the tribe.
Sleeping too much an also be a problem. Chronic fatigue, and many hours sound asleep when you would expect to be awake can be a sign of many serious medical conditions – again, see your doctor. Nevertheless, do let your teenagers get their hours in, although for the sake of detente, it’s good if they can at least roughly correspond with the rest of the family’s down-time.
So, regarding sleep concerns, paradoxically, relax about not sleeping. Have realistic and age-appropriate expectations of sleep duration, and be aware that even if you’re not sleeping when you want to be, you are at least resting your frame, easing your feet and you might enjoy a good read, a warm drink or some waterfall music. If that’s not for you, try getting up, maybe doing the ironing, and make an appointment to talk to your doctor.