The Elephant in the Bedroom

Talk about catch 22: pain disturbs sleep which then means you hurt more the next day. Moreover, bad sleep increases the likelihood of dementia, but if you try to weasel out of it with sleeping pills, they double your risk!

So in addition to protection before sleeping that I described in my last post, I tried two other things, which came from very different sources.

First, I calmed the elephant. Jonathan Haidt describes our brain as the rider and the elephant. The rider is the neocortex, the reasoning, thinking part of our brain, the newest network, which is trying to control the older, more primitive, non-verbal elephant. The rider can debate the pros and cons, it is voluntary – we choose what we give our attention to; the elephant is instinctive and automatic. It learns what is dangerous from experience and stores the clues against a future time. So if we associate a crackle of twigs with being attacked by a tiger, we don’t hang around debating whether to run – the elephant fires the alarm and we are gone.

So, knowing this, how might it affect sleep? Well, my elephant has learned to distrust sleep. It fears the unknown of the hinterland of semi-consciousness as if it were an unguarded path. Nightmares as a child and my mother telling me, when a friend died, “Don’t worry, he died in his sleep.” For years after that I fought drowsiness. My elephant was wary and skittish.

So each night after visualizing the protective shield of my last post, I also imagined a feeling of warmth and safety wrapped round like a blanket. The elephant doesn’t understand words, but does fine with pictures.

Last, having gone to sleep, what about waking and being unable to drop off again? Interestingly, back in the Middle Ages, it was accepted that people woke up in the small hours and wandered about. According to anthropologist Professor Luhrmann, they had a high old time, making love, brewing beer and even burgling. It was considered a normal activity of the body clock.

The worst thing about waking in the night is the dread: if I don’t go back to sleep, I will be soo tired tomorrow. Accompanied by a somatic gloom and a movie of the day dragging on. I have tried telling myself it doesn’t matter if I don’t go back, but I don’t believe it. However, this all alters when reframed: it is normal to wake, not dysfunctional. Telling myself that I have woken and had my nocturnal stroll (to the washroom – not the shenanigans of the 14 century!) and now I will slumber changes the scenario. I am on track, not aberrant – and I go back to sleep.


More info:

Perchance to Sleep – link

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom – Why the Meaningful Life is Closer than You Think by Jonathan Haidt.

Segmented sleep: wakefulness in the small hours – link

Middle Ages and sleep – link


About UntraveledRoads

Fascinated by life, looking for answers to chronic pain and finding unexpected gifts. Interested in people, ideas, healing and humour. I am very happily married with three children and a kitten. As English born immigrants to Canada, we have family spread overseas, a daughter in South Africa and one in England. We also run a charity in South Africa to educate black, rural South African Women. Our first girl from a rural township has just graduated as an accountant from Johannesburg University and got a good job in a bank.
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