Last Tuesday, the world celebrated Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”–such an graphic description, huh?). The next day ushered in Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Lent is the forty-day period (not counting Sundays) of fasting, repentance, and preparation for Easter, which parallels Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Our churches, or our internal sense of spiritual practice, encourage us to make a sacrifice of some sort during this period. Although I have typically given up some combination of foods during this period, this year has been different. Following a discussion with a friend and specific prayer for guidance, I discerned God leading me to abstain from all screens (e.g., TV, phone, laptop) from 10 pm to 5 am daily. Less than one week in, I can say that this has not been an easy adjustment; I’m usually just getting my second wind late at night! However, the sacrifice is beginning to have positive effects on my sleep patterns.
We have such an interesting relationship with sleep. When we were younger and were required to take naps, we often fought them. We didn’t want to miss one moment of the action going on in the world around us. Now, ironically, there’s not a black woman I know who wouldn’t give up a material possession to get a 20-minute power nap! Sleep is so vitally important for our physical, mental, and emotional functioning, yet it can be so elusive because of all of the demands that we take on. We often don’t realize how much a good night’s sleep enables us to feel calm, think clearly, and facilitate our body’s full execution of important processes (e.g., cellular repair, metabolism). Conversely, poor sleep quality can contribute to fatigue, irritability, mental fogginess, and weaknesses in judgment. Ironically, we sometimes take over-the-counter drugs or prescribed medications for conditions that sleep itself can help to alleviate.
How much sleep do we actually need? Research varies, but most empirical work suggests that adult women need between seven and nine hours of sleep, on average. Your individual need for sleep may depend on several factors, including genetic inheritance and your personal constitution, so you will need to pay attention to how much sleep maximizes your performance. Be careful, though, that you haven’t talked yourself into insufficient sleep. We might actually say out loud, “I only need five hours of sleep,” or some other number that seems superhuman! It may be true that you’ve learned how to survive on five hours of sleep, but it is unlikely that five hours allows you to truly thrive in mind, body, soul, and spirit.
“In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for [God] grants sleep to those [God] loves. (Psalm 127:2).” In this verse, sleep is recognized as a gift from God, an indication of God’s provision. Yet, we do often find ourselves “burning the candle at both ends.” We may be staying up late and getting up early to tend to household chores, work on reports, answer e-mails, or take care of our loved ones’ needs. At other times, however, we are missing out on sleep because we are seeking out entertainment. Once we start catching up on missed episodes of our favorite TV show, we can’t stop watching until we’re fully caught up. Or maybe we’re surfing channels and we run across a favorite movie or a marathon that pulls us in. Perhaps we have a favorite game we like to play on our phones or gaming systems. The Lord knows that we work hard, and “numbing out” every now and then is a welcome relief. However, we want to be cautious of entering a cycle where our leisure time begins to take over our sleeping time.
For those of whose “second-shift-at-home” job can easily stretch into the wee hours of the morning, how do we put housework, job responsibilities, and entertainment down and begin making the transition toward sleep? The key is to develop and sustain a ritual for sleep. For some of us, we’re so tired at the end of the day that our ritual is fairly brief—a few words of nighttime prayer are swiftly followed by our drifting into la-la land. For others of us, getting to sleep doesn’t happen so quickly. Any nighttime routines including bathing, teeth brushing, and dressing for bed best happen earlier in the evening, before you become too tired to perform them. As far as your sleeping garments go, choose items that are comfortable, like fluffy pajamas, and give you something to look forward to wearing. And for the grown folks, if intimacy with your mate is a sometimes a part of your nighttime routine, wear garments that are attractive (or nothing at all!), garments that reveal your desire for your mate and your investment in enhancing your total connection.
In order to begin the body’s transition into restful sleep, consider taking a warm bath or playing some relaxing music. (Lullabies aren’t just for babies!) Further, sleep experts recommend that we incorporate a soothing drink into our ritual to prepare for sleep, perhaps warm milk or chamomile tea, as these beverages send signals to the body that it is time to calm down for rest. A herbal remedy that works for many to enhance sleep is melatonin, a hormone that naturally occurs in the body. Unlike other over-the-counter or prescribed sleep aids, melatonin is not habit-forming, making it a safer remedy. Also, even if you’re not abstaining from your devices, it is a good idea to retire those devices about one hour before you turn in. If you’re tempted to check your phone following message notifications, disable the notifications temporarily or relocate your phone to another room while you’re sleeping.
After employing these interventions, should you find yourself still having difficulty getting or staying asleep, you may be dealing with insomnia. Some of us have heard from our ancestors say that when you wake up in the middle of the night, the Lord is trying to talk to you. Many advise that you should have the spirit of Samuel, saying “Speak, for your servant is listening (1 Sam 3:10b).” Prayer, especially the listening portion of prayer, and journaling can be important activities for those times when you wake up in the middle of the night. Resist the temptation to engage in stimulating activities, such as watching TV, checking email, eating, or playing games. Those “solutions” can often aggravate the problem, making it even harder for you to return to sweet sleep. Persistent insomnia may signal that you are struggling with depression or another mental disorder. Seek professional help to prevent many of the long-term effects of chronic sleep deprivation.
If you’re willing, please share any sleep-promoting tips that have worked for you! I’ll let you know how this Lenten fast works out…
À votre santé (“To your health”),