You have my permission to sleep through this sermon. Seriously! If you can fall asleep that easily, then you will not need to hear a word I will say. The topic is practical with tips about sleeping better and thinking about the spiritual significance.
Sleep is a welcome oblivion at the end of the day. A time to rest and be restored. Psalm 4:8
“In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”
But not for all. Trying to get to sleep can become a psychological ‘battlefield’
Daniel 2:1 In the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his spirit was troubled, and his sleep left him.
If you find sleep difficult, like Nebuchadnezzar, you feel the effects the next day: loss of energy, difficulty concentrating and tiredness. There are also effects on mood, your immune system, and any sense of vitality.
Problems with sleep can indicate psychological disorders. Sleep can be disturbed by stress, anxiety might delay sleep with unedited worries running through your mind or indicate depression with early waking (after three or four hours). Or be plagued by nightmares after a severe trauma. Or it can be due to a physical problem such as ‘restless legs’. It is not easy to distinguish the causes of sleep difficulties, so check with your GP. If the source is emotional distress, then perhaps after you talk to your GP, talk to a counsellor.
Spirituality and sleep?
Is it helpful being spiritual when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep? Well, this is a good question. Psalm 127:2 for [God] gives to his beloved sleep. And Jesus gave the example of being asleep in the boat in the midst of a storm (Luke 8:23). So, is there a hint of a promise to the righteous? Believe in God and attend regular church worship and you will sleep better? Maybe.
But realistically, there are some challenges. Normal ageing also makes our sleep more vulnerable. There are two areas affected: we tend to get less slow wave sleep or delta sleep. In this way sleep becomes less restorative. Also, the fragility of sleep increases with a tendency to wake more easily.
There may also be traps for the unwary. Sleep problems contributed to my mother’s death. Every night for her was a struggle. She used the prescription medication Serapax (a benzodiazepine). She would take many tablets each night. She had no difficulty getting prescriptions because she was old and doctors didn’t think it mattered. It became a problem when she became frail and unsteady. She was so sedated at night she would fall from her bed, and of course a series of falls eventually killed her.
Practical Tips from sleep hygiene
What is helpful? I will start with some practical tips, and then think about some theological issues:
- Become familiar with the principles of sleep hygiene. Google that term, there is a lot of good advice such as not watching TV in bed or looking at a screen of a computer before trying to sleep. Avoid back lit reading devices as well. Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible when you want to sleep. The point is that our behaviours while awake influence our readiness to sleep. (see helpguide.org how to sleep better).
- Regular exercise in the day. Experiment but do something you actually enjoy since it will be easier to maintain. For example, I prefer taking the dog for a walk rather than swimming, but you may enjoy laps in a pool. Make sure your exercise is not just before bedtime since it can speed up metabolism. But Yoga or gentle stretching can be very helpful.
- There is a lot about nutrition and alcohol, so check the experts. Having a glass of milk can help one person but not another.
- Having a bath can relax muscles, doing what a Valium does. Probably best an hour or so before bed.
- What do you do just before going to bed? I think it is a good time to read poetry or the classics or the Bible which are not always ‘page turners’. Familiarize yourself with your cycles of drowsiness, go to bed when you feel sleepy to ‘catch the snooze train’.
- Understanding delta sleep as restorative is helpful, because it tends to come in the first four hours. If you can get four hours you are probably getting most of what you really need.
- Set times to wake up. This will reset your circadian rhythms. Use an alarm clock (to make sure you get up at the same time). Get up then even if you are on holiday or retired, and ‘soak’ in daylight if possible. Eat breakfast by a sunny window. Avoid sleeping in on the weekends or having naps in the afternoon (limit to 15-20 minutes if unavoidable). The regularity of sleep helps to set the body’s expectation of sleep. You may not feel in control of when you get to sleep but generally we can control when we get up. So start with that regularity.
- Are you sensitive to noise? Late night parties or early bird song (some of our Australian birds seem tone deaf to me). There are free aps for white noise, waves or rain.
- Relaxation tapes including a free one Canberra Clinical and Forensic Psychology website ccfpsych.com.au These can help you to learn new skills for what psychologists call ‘emotional regulation’.
- Try not to worry about how much energy you will need for all the activities of the next day, instead of fretting say something, “I am grateful for this opportunity to rest.” Get out of your head and focus on your body. Make your goal resting or relaxing – which often results in getting to sleep anyway.
There are some useful spiritual resources in relation to sleep. You could count angels rather than sheep? Seriously, the Greek Orthodox have a tradition of using the Kyrie Lord have mercy…. This is repeated almost like some eastern religions encourage the use of a mantra. You might prefer to use a favorite Bible verse “The peace of God passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7) or “In the beginning God” (Gen 1:1).
I find the most useful skills are from mindfulness or meditation. Nothing mysterious, it is simply paying attention.
For example: The mindfulness of breath. Demonstrate. It is that simple.
This is centering. It relaxes the brain stem which controls sleep. Try tonight when you want to sleep or when you next find sleep problematic. If this does not work immediately then you will have plenty of opportunity to practice this skill. You might also want to experiment with progressive muscle relation and visualization. Use the internet for suggestions.
Why do we sleep? Why were we made so that we need to spend nearly 1/3 of our lives in sleep? Apparently, a giraffe sleeps only two hours a day and pythons 18 hours a day. And God never sleeps (Ps 121:4). Beyond the physical reasons for sleep, perhaps there are some theological hints.
Job 14:12 “So a man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake or be roused out of his sleep.”
This reminds us that our lives are ‘bookended’ by sleep. The baby in the womb has cycles of being awake, eyes open and of course exercise as any mother will verify. The baby also sleeps, hears and feels emotions. But there is a sense that the infant becomes awake with birth and as Job reminds us our last sleep is death.
I would suggest that as Christians we can affirm a deep truth about sleep. It is a sacrament of trust. The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson talked about the first stage of life as Basic Trust and later attachment theorists conceptualized secure attachment with parental carers. We start life, ideally but not always, with a sense of trust and being loved. In Christ we can find in death a sense of timeliness, trust and connection with God. I hope one day to hear “Well done thou good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23).
I suggest that sleep, whether it comes easily or presents a challenge, can be a reminder of a need to trust in God. It comes daily; it is a habit (at least in expectation). We are reminded that God is God whom we can trust to the end of our days.
Prayer at the end of the day from Anglican service of Compline (Monastic service at the end of the day):
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, who at this evening rested in the sepulcher, and sanctified the grave to be a bed of hope to your people, make us to abound in sorrow for our sins, which were the cause of your passion, that when our bodies lie in the dust, we may live with you, through the saving merits of your cross, for you live and reign with the Father and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen (APB, p. 108-109).
I can’t add to that wonderful prayer. Just a personal amen.
Professor Bruce A Stevens (PhD Boston U, 1987) was ordained in the Anglican Church in 1980, is a clinical psychologist and serves as the supply minister at Gungahlin Uniting Church. He had the Wicking Chair of Ageing and Practical Theology at Charles Sturt University (2015-2019).