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Insomnia Due To Mental Causes

( Originally Published 1914 )



THE normal human being is born with the desire and the intention to spend a considerable portion of his time in sleep. Whether he works or plays he will still expect to add a period of oblivion to all things that make a direct appeal to his senses. He may exercise up to a certain point his power of choice to postpone or reduce this period of oblivion but he will always pay the full price for doing so in loss of comfort and efficiency during the waking period thus unwarrantably lengthened.

The law of sleep is the law of life. Failure to observe it must inevitably result in physical bankruptcy. Anyone who sets aside his intention and desire to sleep will find in the long run that he has set aside to some degree his desire and intention to live.

"Mental" Insomnia.—In the majority of cases in which insomnia is directly traceable to absence of mental tranquillity, it will be found that in the earlier stages the wakefulness was deliberate and intentional. The individual who goes to bed with the will to remain awake will readily achieve his purpose if he continue to feed thoughts to his brain. It may be that in a few hours before retiring he has been under some violent mental excitement. He may have attended some important public function where his eloquence has won him applause. He may have taken part in some heated altercation. over politics or cards. He may have been emotionally stirred by some slight, real or fancied, administered by one dear to him. Business may have been suddenly upset or perhaps is simply in danger of being upset. Stocks may be going up or down.

In any of these contingencies, and a thousand others, sleep will be deliberately and intentionally banished. The mind will be kept active from choice, reviewing the social triumph achieved a few hours earlier or recalling this or that unpleasant epithet hurled in an angry moment. Whether it be the young debutante dancing over her dances in retrospect or the man of business following the details of an intricate deal soon to be consummated, minutes, even hours, elapse before he or she will even register the thought "Better leave all this and go to sleep."

If the mental excitement has been natural and reasonably moderate, the individual may pass into unconsciousness with this imposition of the will to sleep, even though long delayed. If, however, the mental excitement has been unusual or of great intensity, it frequently happens that by the time the individual records this intention and desire to sleep, the brain which he has goaded and spurred into a feverish gallop refuses to stop. The mind refuses to obey and the same thoughts, at first summoned with de-liberate intent, return as unbidden guests and defy every effort made to dislodge them.

If the incident giving rise to this uncontrolable effervescence of mind is of momentary duration only, that is, if it is of a character to be easily dismissed on the morrow because of its having been concluded and ended, then the victim will have been at a loss of just one night's sleep. But if the cause of the mental perturbation is a continuing cause, if, let us say, the stock market is still moving contrary to the desire and interests of the casual insomniac of the night before, then there is danger of a second night being spent as fruitlessly as the first. His condition will become aggravated from the fact that his thoughts by losing nothing in insistency will lose in meaning and significance. While active enough to keep him awake, they will cease to interest or engross him. He will think mechanically and uncomprehendingly. The same thought will obtrude itself again and again. He will be drowned in it, made deaf by it. The buzzing of a mosquito, heeded for a period of ten seconds, may be found to have some element of melody to it, but continued for hours it irritates to the point of frenzy. In the same way the tenacity of that single meaningless idea, throbbing away unceasingly in his brain, will develop into bodily irritation and loss of temper. This will result in hurried heart action and heightened temperature and carry the victim into another wakeful day, tired, nervous and ill-natured.

It is perhaps at this stage that his greatest danger will confront him—the FEAR of insomnia.

When those who have been a prey to the sleep-dispelling mental obsessions described, approach the hour for going to bed, not only fearful that they may not sleep, but with a firm conviction that they will not sleep, their condition may be viewed with alarm. Such an attitude is negative and very naturally conducive to sleeplessness.

The insomniac who repeats to himself that he will not sleep is adding momentum to his descent into the lowest pit of sleeplessness with every repetition of the thought. Just as it only requires so many reiterated declarations of "I will sleep" in order to bring on slumber, so will it only require a certain number of repetitions of " I will not sleep " in order to bring on wakefulness. And the longer this negative thought is harboured, the harder will it be to dislodge it.

It is vital that insomniacs of this character cultivate and acquire the right point of view. They must learn to view their infirmity in the right perspective. To be sure, a little insomnia disturbs the aspect of the whole world and it early becomes impossible for the victim of it to take an impersonal view of his disability. He dreads the advent of the night as the wed-ding guests dreaded the coming of the Ancient Mariner. He sees in anticipation a repetition of past performances from which he emerged dismayed, desolate and despairing. He is convinced that he will not sleep and frequently he needs more than verbal assurance to have this conviction dislodged. The victim of this sort of wakefulness must help to overcome his difficulty by cultivating a will to sleep. All deliberate tasks of the will are irksome and it is easier to follow along the line of compelling natural desires. But the constructive point of view to be acquired in combating insomnia is that sleep is a compelling natural desire. The will to stay awake is easier than the will to sleep, because the incentive to the former is very keen at the time when it is first essayed. But in the normal man, the will to remain awake is short-lived. It is short-lived from the point of view of comfort and not very long-lived from the point of view of safety.

The insomniac should be encouraged by the realisation of the fact that the distribution of sleep and wakefulness is a process which goes on according to natural law and is not wholly, perhaps very little, subject to immediate direction of the human will. The natural law is to sleep and the will to obey this law is the natural will. When, therefore, we seek to persuade the sufferer from wakefulness to cultivate a will to sleep, to develop a method where before he had been playing a speculative game, we are, in fact, simply asking him to conform to a natural law.

If the insomniac should feel confused before the question of what will is, we can say to him, "Put the whole matter on the ground of desire. Imbue yourself with the idea that what a man most ardently desires, that will he get, and remember that man's most ardent desire is as nothing compared with Nature's desire."

When Nature desires that we should sleep, it is no light and trivial whim that may be waived lightly aside, but a formal and definite command, transgressed at heavy cost. We cannot bargain over this matter. We cannot modify Nature's age-long will that we should sleep by offering her tithes from the fruits of forced wakefulness. Sleep is the method by which we obtain wakefulness. It is the thing first to be desired because through it alone comes wakefulness. It is to be desired not in. some wilful, fitful, coquettish way, but in Nature's way : imperiously, systematically and without abatement. The law of sleep towers above man's activities as high as the laws of Nature raise themselves above the rules of men.

Nature's method is not that of extended wakefulness but of systematised distribution of waking and sleeping, profoundly restful sleep on the one hand and systematised expenditure of efficient efforts during wakefulness on the other. When this systematic allotment has been fundamentally disturbed, the unfortunate individual is face to face with a condition from which he ought to be willing to seek deliverance at any cost. He is the victim of misplaced confidence, a relic of misdirected endeavour. Once on a time he knew what sleep was—oblivion, an uncharted country, known only in terms of its borderlands. Like most people who know too much about the unknown, he now suffers through the possession of a new and particular kind of knowledge. He knows at heavy expense to himself a state that is neither good sleeping nor good waking, a state negative of all good results, for which there is the especially coined word INSOMNIA. Its special characteristic may be defined as the absence or negation of that degree of sleep which we find to be grateful and at the same time necessary for the formation of successful and happy living. It is a strange form of being awake, toward which we are most bitterly antagonistic. No light of happy sentiment plays about it. It is shrouded in the darkness of lost desire and only one clear ray of understanding sweeps across its gloom: "Sleep is gone, sleep has not come." All this the insomniac feels and says to himself more or less clearly. But it is necessary if he would abandon the undesired freedom which wakefulness brings him and deliver himself bound with the chains of the good tyrant SLEEP, for him to get out of the region of sentiment and feeling and into the region of Will and Endeavour. He must make friends and become partner of the indispensable state of Sleep. He must follow the dictates of common sense and common experience toward a state which brings him to his liveliest sense of power and his deepest sense of well-being. He must make it one of his routine and unqualified affirmations that he wants sleep of the sort and amount that will make him most efficiently active in those hours when it goes away, and which leave him to the great business of living properly and happily. He must cease his useless endeavour to think about insomnia, to solve its mysteries, to measure its dangers, and to mitigate its discomforts. It is towards Sleep that he must turn his attention. To solve its secrets should be his endeavour. To be able to turn the key which opens its doors or at least to hide the key with which either his friend or his enemy would shut the door against him and bar him out, should be his highest aspiration.



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