Your Brain Needs Silence (And Probably Isn’t Getting It)
Do you lay awake at night because you're replaying some embarrassing thing you did earlier in the day? "The girl at Dunkin Donuts asked what size coffee I wanted and I said grande. Welp, can't ever go back there again!" Or, do you spend sleepless hours replaying an argument and imagining the killer final line you should have said? Or rehearse a tense conversation you might have tomorrow, but probably won't?
This is one of the most common causes of insomnia -- people say they can't "shut off their brain" at night and, in fact, smart people with hyperactive brains do have the hardest time sleeping. I think there's a really simple, fixable reason for this:
You need to give yourself time during the day to do the worrying you're doing at night.
Now, right away I know what you're thinking:
"All I do is worry, you ass! I'm the dog to life's vacuum cleaner!"
I don't think that's true, though. I think you have nagging anxieties throughout the day but that you spend every minute distracting yourself from them.
"One screen for each eye, music for the ears, and a drink to wrangle any free brain cells into tastebud duty. All set."
Or at least, that's how I do it -- frantically sucking up information, never digesting it. In the car on the way to work? Put on a podcast. On the treadmill? Put in earbuds and music. Waiting for food at a restaurant? Scroll through Facebook. When the lights go out and you're under the covers, you're giving your brain its first chance to actually process all of the big stuff that's weighing on you. The first moment with no input coming in.
Remember, your brain is designed to do one thing only: help you survive. You dwell on conflict and embarrassing situations because you are, whether you know it or not, training yourself how to do it better in the future. But that's a two-step process -- the awful thing occurs, then you have to work through what you did wrong and why. The second part can be deeply unpleasant, so we tend to avoid it. Until, that is, we're lying there in the darkness, alone with our thoughts. The brain is not going to let you rest until this important work of digestion has been done.
Now, sleep experts always say you need quiet time before bed to wind down. They say it's because you need to slowly get into relaxation mode instead of trying to shift gears abruptly. This is where I, an internet comedian and dong horror author, disagree with those professional experts who study nothing but this every single day of their lives. I don't think that's it at all -- I think you just need quiet time during the day, whenever it is, to work through stuff. I mean, it's well known that humans need silence. Some hospitals started mandating a quiet period in the afternoon because the constant noise and bustle was killing patients and staff alike. Note that they turn down the lights, too -- darkness, as Shakespeare once said, is the silence of the eyeballs.
"And sex, the pizza of the genitals."
This is also why any list of insomnia tips say if you can't sleep, get up and go do something repetitive and boring. If you do all of your anxious thinking in bed, that becomes your habit -- you train yourself to do it. I say you need to train yourself to do it at some other time during the day. Force the issue; think of it as a body necessity, like brushing your teeth.
"So, what, you're talking about meditation?"
Holy shit, no. I mean, you can do that if you want, I've heard it's a good method. But any time someone recommends I take a ten-day meditation retreat to relieve my stress it makes me imagine myself whipping them across the face with a blackjack (which maybe is proof that I need it?). No, I didn't want to suggest meditation or yoga or any other hippie bullshit because this isn't about channeling your energies or listening to your soul -- it's just brain biology. I don't care what you do during your quiet time, as long as it doesn't involve new information coming into your skull. I know at least one person who goes into his back yard for an hour and hits an old tractor tire with a sledgehammer over and over.
This is why you've probably had more than one great idea in the shower. All of the necessary ingredients are there at shower time: no human interaction, a simple task, the only sound a steady white noise. Unless you're reading this from, like, prison, or something.
"But I'm the type to cycle endlessly over the same, useless thought! I've been beating myself up over dumb shit I said when I was 12!"
Me, too. Have you tried writing it down? Or telling a stranger about it (a counselor, or ... somebody)? See, the reason the brain repeats memories or worries over and over is probably because it's afraid you won't remember it long-term otherwise. This is why another common insomnia tip is to write down what's upsetting you every night, even if it's just a to-do list of the unpleasant stuff you have to do tomorrow. It's saying to your brain, "Okay, this data has been safely stored off-site, you can stop replaying it every ten seconds, you freak."
Do you remember Arya having any insomnia subplots on Game Of Thrones? No? Exactly.
I also think this is the primary benefit of therapy -- you're still stopping your day/week to think through the stuff you don't normally have time for, only with the help of somebody who can make sure those thoughts are actually productive (which is probably better for our hypothetical guy who at 30 can't get over that time he peed his pants on stage during a high-school performance of South Pacific).
"Wait, isn't all of your advice taken from a Louis C.K. bit?"
I did see that clip, in which Louis said he realized he was using his phone to distract from his own sadness and decided it was better to just stop and let the emotion overwhelm him:
... But that was a bit about how cell phones are the plague of the modern world, and that's not my position (probably 75 percent of you are reading this on a phone, after all). I think we've always been addicted to distractions to silence the howling demons in our brains, the modern world has just gotten better at catering to that need. No, this idea has actually been haunting me ever since I heard an old interview of Frasier star Kelsey Grammer talking about the time he went to jail for drunk driving and saying it was, "the best, most restful 11 days I've had in years." He said it was a release just to not have people asking anything of him, and Robert Mitchum said the same thing after his drug arrest ("I've been happy in jail ... nobody wanted anything from me.") I then found myself fantasizing about how peaceful jail must be and realized that probably isn't a healthy thought.
We can find that productive, thinking peace in our daily lives, we just have to force the issue, somehow. Here's a video of a toddler being startled by a farting goat:
David Wong is the Executive Editor at Cracked. His new book, WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST READ, is available for preorder now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, iBooks and Kobo.
For more life lessons from David, check out 6 Facts That Will Clear Up Your Confusing Life and Why Anxiety Is The Plague Of The Modern World.
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