Nearly every one I know over the age of fifty struggles with insomnia to some degree. I have slept through the night exactly three times in the past seven years, and none in the past five. Whenever I manage to fall asleep (sometimes several hours after going to bed), I’ll usually make it through two ninety-minute sleep cycles before suddenly waking completely up in the middle of the night. Often this mid-night awakening is accompanied by a rush of adrenaline and a good strong hot flash—just to make sure there’s no risk I’ll roll over and fall back to sleep quickly. Any sleep I get the rest of the night is broken into short segments with at least two additional awakenings. I can’t even remember what it feels like to wake up refreshed.
And I know I’m not alone. Articles on the importance of sleep seem to slap you in the face every time you turn around. Inadequate sleep is reported to cause obesity, heart attacks, increased accidents, emotional lability. And the list goes on. Just this morning, our newspaper featured an article about a study that found that poor sleep in people of retirement age was a significant factor in memory loss. Small wonder we lose sleep worrying about the effects of losing sleep.
Most articles focus on the fact that few American adults get as much sleep as they need, and the authors approach the problem from a scolding perspective, as if insomnia were a choice. We don’t sleep enough because we work too much or we refuse to turn off our electronic gadgets and relax. It’s easy to find articles describing good sleep hygiene: keep your bedroom cool, no TV in the bedroom, no work in the bedroom, exercise but not within four hours of bedtime, get up and read if you can’t fall asleep in a reasonable time, etc., etc., etc.
I know all that. I suspect you do, too. For me, I suspect the dual culprits are aging and stress. Fact: women of a “certain age” simply do not sleep as well as they once did. We have more trouble falling asleep and sleep more lightly. I certainly do. Then there’s stress. Does this sound familiar? I zip through the day, accomplishing task after task. I have aging parents and a not-yet-fully-launched child to worry about. In the evening, I try to relax by watching TV with OG and/or reading. The minute the lights go out, my mind starts to race, attempting to sort out all the unresolved issues of my life. Because I’m so tired, my brain rarely finds constructive answers, but that doesn’t stop it from trying.
So what’s the answer? I’m trying progressive relaxation and other meditative techniques such as mentally repeating a short phrase over an over like a mantra to keep the mind free. No real success yet, but apparently it takes practice to master the technique. I also saw an interesting factoid in the Oct/Nov issue of the AARP newsletter stating that Americans ages 45-64 spend an average of just 18 minutes a day relaxing and thinking. I wonder what would happen if I devoted perhaps a half-hour a day to contemplation. If I took the time to think things through thoroughly during the day, would my mind still insist on trying to do it again at night? It’s worth a try.