Wellness: Dropping Out of the Insomnia Culture

Therapist Siegfried Haug talks about how we can take back our sleep.

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

How can we sleep when our own thoughts, our households and our life styles make sleep impossible? When our children turn day into night and night into day? When our cell phones won't stop ringing and our friends and workmates are muttering, "Sleeping is for losers?"

That's the question therapist Siegfried Haug has to help people answer. To talk to Haug is to embark on a guided tour of an insomniac world: teenagers sleepless from addiction to online games; seniors wakeful because of diet or hormonal changes; people of all ages wide-eyed in the middle of the night because of stimulus and adenalin overload. College dorms can be hotbeds of group insomnia, with athletic coaches the only enforcers of sanity in the matter of sleep.

Haug says his best patients are those who are "desperate" because the sleeping medications they've been taking for years have produced side effects that are nightmares in themselves: sleepwalking, hallucinations. That forces their doctors to quit prescribing the meds, and then, says Haug, they come to him, ready to listen—to reestablish the bond between themselves and the nourishing sleep they need.

"Sleep has requirements," says Haug. "It doesn't want to be rushed. It doesn't respond to the power schemes you're constructing in your mind." In other words, if you try to make the onset of sleep a control issue, you're fighting a losing battle, as Haug points out in I Want to Sleep (2008; Outskirts Press), a book in which he draws on case studies to illuminate his approach to sleep problems.

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The very process of information intake, calculation and planning that makes us functional during the day—though even in our waking hours we pay a price for the hyped-up, overpaced style of our functionality—leaves us sleepless at night when we're unable to turn it off, Haug explains.

"All brains are hard-wired for problem-solving. The smarter you are, the more you're anticipating bad stuff," he says. "In the night, you will look for trouble, and the part of your mind that in the daytime could say, This is a little crazy, is phased out. You're left with a brain that will drive you nuts."

Sleep, Haug says, exists in a different realm than the one most people find themselves in at bedtime—indeed, in some households, bedtime can hardly be said to exist. The tired person must cross over, Haug points out, must distance himself or herself from the overstimulated world that is hostile to sleep and make the journey to where sleep is. Turning off communications devices; timing discussion of family problems so they don't blow up late in the evening; letting go of fear and competitiveness; writing a journal (a favorite therapeutic exercise of Haug's); doing nourishing things for the body—all are part of creating a culture of relaxation and self-soothing that will help a person to sleep, to slip comfortably from "wired" to "tired."

So is conditioning oneself to think of time as a friend rather than an enemy. Problems must be solved, but they can be solved after sleep, as part of the next day's work; to take the long view is to see that whatever is keeping a person awake tonight will be forgotten after a few days, a few weeks, a few years, outlived with the help of sleep.

But people who are conditioned to see everything as a performance demand see even sleep not as an ally, but as a matter of success or failure, says Haug.

"They worry: 'How long will it take me to fall asleep?'" he says. "Everything is accelerated. They have no sense of the flow of biological time. They think sleeping is a loss of precious time. To have eight hours taken out of their day seems outrageous."

"When you see the need for stepped-up stimuli, for stepped-up time lines, you know you're holding an addictive process somewhere by the tail," Haug adds. "When people end their day, they are hyperstimulated. & You wouldn't believe the number of people that keep their radio on. They can't stand the quietness. Some still have to have a light on, a TV going."

Sleep is a matter of healing and self-soothing on many levels. One of the conditions most favorable to insomnia, and a common condition in a society that minimizes physical labor and maximizes mental work, is the combination of an overdriven mind and a desk-bound body. Haug recalls a middle-aged male client who had been driven to his wit's end by insomnia: "I told him, 'You know Habitat for Humanity. They build houses for people. Call Habitat for Humanity, go and get outside and hammer nails for three days, and I guarantee you, you will sleep.'"

Women, Haug says, are more likely than men to lose sleep over other people's problems, especially their children's. "Worrying and caring for a lot of women are synonymous," he says. "A woman will tell me that the fact that the man can lie down and be out proves that he doesn't love the kids. You tell her that if she says awake at night and worries, it's not helping. She knows her being sleep-deprived in the morning makes her incapable of functioning. The recognition should be that when you're worrying at night—even if you're caring—you're obsessing."

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Haug developed a specialty in the treatment of insomnia when, as a therapist dealing with relationship problems, he "began to realize how many people got in trouble because they were overtired. Relationships are highly stressful. If you can't sleep or you're sleep-deprived, a lot of bad stuff happens."

Then, he says, when people identify sleep deprivation as an important contributor to their other problems, they seek help from their doctors and the issue becomes "medicalized"—that is, instead of getting help to find their way back to the centers of relaxation in themselves, they use sleeping medications. Eventually, however—years down the road—that way of dealing with insomnia becomes a dead end.

Ironically, in the future, as sleep medications "improve"—in other words, are more finely tuned to mesh with the body's own processes—Haug sees more potential for dependency on them.

"The sleep medications, as they get 'better and better,' they're getting closer and closer to what our brains do naturally," he says. "So the brain cannot distinguish anymore between what's coming in and what it's doing itself, and the brain's function in producing the substances that help us sleep will shut down."

In older cultures, Haug points out, sleep was traditionally valued as a state that brings renewal and revelations in ways that are impossible when we are awake and active. "In mythological language, there was a realization that sleep allows you to tap into resources that on the conscious level we just don't have," he says. "A purely linear mind that just goes for something in a goal-oriented way has its limits... We're not that smart. Nature knows it and pulls the plug."

Siegfried Haug and therapist Dr. Katherine Walsh will lead a workshop series on sleep and relaxation at 8 Trumbull Road in Northampton beginning Oct. 16. For more information and to register, call (413) 455-6583 or email sfhaug@gmail.com.

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