These are stressful days in the Simpson household. With two high schoolers and a school counselor in our family, this time of year is always busy with end-of-year school demands. This year our oldest is a graduating senior, which means this month and next are even busier than usual. She’s looking ahead to college plans, and soon her departure will mean a big change for all of us. Our 1-year-old nephew is fighting cancer, and his parents are fighting bureaucracy to access the life-saving medical intervention he needs. We had our own health scare last week, we’re weighing a possible big transition, and a puddle of oil on the garage floor tells us we are facing the next installment in a series of car troubles that have kept our mechanic busy over the last several months. And like everyone, we’re well aware of all the scary ways our world can change in an instant.
We have all had some short, restless nights in recent weeks.
We are not alone. Worry is not the only reason people find themselves lying awake at night, but it is common. In one survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 44 percent of adults indicated that stress had caused them to lie awake at night at least once in the previous month.
As Westerners struggling to keep pace in an accelerating world, many of us tend to underrate the value of sleep and overrate our own abilities to go without it. Contrary to what we may believe, besides frustrating nights and drowsy days, sleeplessness can have serious consequences.
No one really knows why, but sleep is critical to the proper functioning of our bodies and minds. Studies show that sleep deficits slow our thinking, compromise memory, make learning difficult, impair our reaction time, cause irritability, increase anger, decrease capacity for stress, and make us less likely to engage in good habits such as eating well and exercising. Sleeplessness also increases the risk of depression and anxiety. In one study conducted by the University of North Texas, people with insomnia were almost 10 times more likely to suffer from clinical depression and more than 17 times more likely to be affected by “clinically significant” anxiety.
Sleeplessness affects our judgment and concentration and is linked with higher levels of substance abuse. It is also linked with a heightened risk of driving accidents, obesity, diabetes and heart problems.
Experts say sleep needs vary somewhat from person to person, but according to the National Sleep Foundation, most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. By contrast, American adults average less than seven hours of sleep. And nearly two-thirds (63 percent) say their sleep needs are not met during the week.
Again, worry and stress are not the only things that keep us awake at night. Sometimes life interrupts our schedules; sometimes children do. At times, sickness or pain or other hardships keep us up. Sometimes God himself wakes us for his own reasons. But worry and stress are common causes, and these mindsets are largely voluntary. Sometimes we just can’t bear to let go of the opportunity to worry and try to solve what’s bothering us. We refuse rest as if the world will fall apart without our vigilance. When we feel overwhelmed by what worries us, we tend not to go to bed when we should because it would mean letting go of some control, acknowledging that our worry isn’t helpful and believing that the future of the world doesn’t depend on our staying awake. And when worried people do go to bed, we often lie awake. But losing sleep only compounds our problems.
To the extent that we have control over this problem, we can make different choices. And choosing to let go of our anxiety and to rest peacefully starts with what we believe about ourselves and our relationship to God. A Baylor University study found that when people pray to relieve anxiety, what we believe about God determines whether prayer actually helps. If we believe God is weak or detached or likely to reject us, our prayers are unlikely to reduce our anxiety levels. If we believe God loves us, hears us, and cares for us (even when we he doesn’t do what we think he should do), prayer helps. It helps because our belief gives us the capacity to surrender our worries to God.
The same capacity is necessary for us to rest well in stressful times. So many of us can’t seem to let go of our worries long enough to sleep peacefully. And letting go is required. Ironically, staying awake at night typically doesn’t help solve our problems. Worry-fueled sleeplessness simply robs us of what we need to live in the best possible manner. It saps our ability to take productive action or to change our choices in a way that will address what’s worrying us. And yet this letting go is a difficult thing, particularly if we don’t really believe God is stronger than us.
It was Victor Hugo who wrote, “Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.” Doing so is a simple but sometimes terribly difficult act of faith.
Sometimes we really believe the world cannot go on if we’re not actively trying to solve its problems. But it can and will go on, and going to sleep is a phenomenal act of trust and acceptance of our limits. Next time you’re worried, try resting in the arms of God. “He who watches over you will not slumber” (Psalm 121:3).
© 2018 Amy Simpson.