Sleep gives rest to the tired mind and the weary flesh, although medical experts are not certain what causes people to go to sleep.
Sleep affects people differently. While some can sleep the clock round and still feel tired, others are refreshed after a catnap.
Young children appear to need more sleep than adults, and much older folk seem to require less sleep as age increases.
Habit plays a decided part in both waking and sleeping. Many people can wake automatically at a certain hour if they so desire, or sleep on if there is no need to awaken.
A few hours’ sound sleep is better than a full night of restless dozing. It is possible to accustom oneself to a minimum amount of sleep and remain healthy.
Doctors are not certain what causes sleep, but believe that it is a state of a general inhibition of cerebral activity.
They think that there is a sleep center in the brain which can inhibit cerebral activity by its influence on the adjacent brain centers.
The causes of insomnia are many. Most of them are trivial, but some can be serious. Loss of sleep may be caused by disease or discomfort, or by purely psychological factors.
There is a kind of “rational” insomnia to be expected when the mind is kept alert by some exceptional circumstances.
It may come to the barrister the night before an important trial, to the surgeon before a difficult operation, to the actor before the first night, or the anxious parent with a sick child.
It is almost to be expected when first sleeping in a strange bed, in a train, or on the first night at sea.
However, it is related that Napoleon, who possessed the power of shutting from his mind the worries of the moment, could sleep soundly on the eve of battle.
Some people fall asleep so easily that it requires considerable discomfort to disturb their night’s rest.
Others are so sensitive to the discomfort that a lumpy mattress, too many pillows, not enough warmth, or too many bedclothes will keep them tossing about wakefully for half the night
Anything which causes pain, persistent cough, fever, shortness of breath, acute palpitation, or itching of the skin is liable to produce insomnia.
Certain physical diseases where the brain and/or its membranes become inflamed are likely to cause loss of sleep.
Some people cannot drink tea, coffee, alcohol, or use tobacco just before bedtime without disturbing sleep.
Apart from the mildly stimulating effect of these refreshments, there is a good deal of imagination at work in the minds of those who suffer from a resultant insomnia.
A great many other people find that the bedtime cup of tea, the evening toddy, or the final cigarette acts as a definite aid to sound sleep.
Many children are taught that insomnia or nightmare is likely to follow a late meal. This idea is an old wives’ tale that often persists into adulthood.
The over-conscientious person will do without supper, with the result that he wakes in the small hours feeling hungry and cannot get back to sleep.
Such people whose rest is disturbed by wakefulness, whether through fear of nightmare or from the pangs of neurotic hunger, should provide themselves with biscuits and milk at the bedside.
A large variety of psychological factors might be cited as causes of insomnia. Excitement, for instance, tends to keep people awake just as boredom may put them to sleep.
Some people’s minds tend to become overactive at night — perhaps as the result of the study, an enthralling book, a captivating entertainment, or an enjoyable company. This mental over-activity may persist for some time after the bedside lamp has been extinguished.
Realizing this tendency, the wise will endeavor to relax an hour or so before bedtime.
Worry of any kind — domestic, economic, or amatory — is likely to cause sleeplessness, particularly as any type of worry tends to become magnified at night.
Taking one’s troubles to bed is the surest way to banish sleep. This can quickly become a habit, leading to chronic insomnia.
To distract one’s mind by reading until sleep is induced may work with some, but for others the book may become too distracting and an extended period of wakefulness may ensue.
Some people, largely those of neurotic temperament, find it difficult to relax their hold on reality when trying to sleep.
They allow themselves to become indignant at the disturbance of a late party across the street or the shunting of trains in the goods yard.
They seem to wait for the last tram to pass or the rooster to begin crowing.
Fear of not going to sleep often keeps people awake. This is a well-recognized phobia among those who, as part of their neurosis, display an anxious preoccupation with ideas of sleep and the supposed evil consequences of not sleeping.
They recount in prideful detail the hours of their insomnia to any sympathetic ear.
In a state of mild panic they sometimes endeavor to tire themselves out in order to fall asleep, only to find that they become more wakeful. Many take to sleeping draughts in desperation, and some even become mildly addicted to the nightly sedative.
This may be partly some doctors’ fault, who find it easier to write a prescription for a sleeping pill than bother to correct the fear and the patient’s attitude to his disorder.
By the application of simple psychotherapy it is often possible to persuade the patient to adopt an indifferent attitude as to whether he wakes or sleeps. When he displays true indifference the matter of sleep becomes automatic, as it should be.
Young children sometimes suffer from insomnia and often from reasons similar to those of adults.
Wakefulness in a child may represent a resentment at having to go to bed, at having to relinquish its interests and pleasures at the direction of the parent.
In such a case the mother must exercise her ingenuity and make going to bed more pleasant than staying up.
On the other hand fear — fear of the dark, of sleepwalking, nightmares, or enuresis (bedwetting) — may so dominate the child’s mind that sleep is banished.
In the production of these fears, the parents are mainly responsible, and the treatment of the child must proceed through the instruction and willing cooperation of the parents.
Generally speaking, then, sleep is nature’s gift, and is meant to be shared by all.
There may be times in the lives of most of us when, through misadventure, sickness, or calamity, we suffer from a temporary insomnia.
But if we apply commonsense and do not allow the fear of not sleeping to prey upon us, it will not last long.
Insomnia, in any case, is not a disease but a symptom, and it is wiser to treat the cause than the symptom.
Recalcitrant insomnia calls for a thorough medical investigation and will generally respond to skilled treatment.