It’s Barbed-Wire Thinking

By Wendi Stewart

I know every nick and mark on my bedroom ceiling. I know how many pine boards span its width. I have some idea of the spiders who go about their business above me from time to time, weaving their magic in silence. Why, you might ask, why do I stare at the ceiling? Because I can’t sleep. I am awake many times during the night and sometimes the entire night. Sleep doesn’t come easy for me. I’m not sure it ever has, or at least hasn’t come easy since I was fourteen. I am not a person who envies others, but I must confess I do envy those who fall to sleep with an air of the effortless, as though they flip a switch when they move to the horizontal position and are quickly transported away from their wakeful self, their bodies limp and soft and free, suspended in some other dimension than wakefulness.

I remember a time when sleep came easily and without any effort at all. It was during the two weeks preceding the birth of my second daughter. I moved around my world like a beached whale during those weeks and when I collapsed into bed at night, I was, as they like to say, though I’m not sure who they are, asleep before my head hit the pillow. It was a divine time, a cherished memory, a euphoric place I visited but could not stay.

My sleeplessness seems to have worsened in the last eighteen months though I’m not sure that’s possible. It’s a bit like saying you are wetter if you walk in the rain than if you stand in the rain. Wet is wet. Awake is awake. I’ve been searching out new techniques in the hopes of preserving what remains of my sanity and I recently came upon an article at The Conversation, written by Greg Murray, Professor and Director of the Centre for Mental Health at Swinburne University in Australia. He writes that “there is evidence the pandemic is a sleep-disturbing stressor”. Though it is an obvious claim, I took comfort in those words. Those of us who cannot sleep are not alone and a night of ceiling-staring is a lonely place to be.

Murray is an expert in “mood, sleep, and the circadian system.” In the article, the Professor mentions “barbed-wire thinking, because you can get caught in it”. I’ve wrestled with enough barbed-wire in my day and the analogy is quite accurate. He goes on to write, “3 a.m. thinking [is] completely irrational and unproductive.” Normally speaking, in our sleep patterns, at about 3 a.m. our neurobiology shifts. Our nervous system and its circuitry begin to ready us for wakefulness and as such our core temperature begins to rise, melatonin release has reached its peak, and cortisol levels begin to rise. Our body does this without the presence of increasing daylight; it is a built-in response. When we are worried/stressed, this 3 a.m. shift in our body’s internal workings causes us to waken, often with a jolt.

Our brain isn’t armed for problem-solving at 3 a.m. and while we lie awake our problems morph from worry to catastrophe, catastrophe without remedy. To return to sleep requires mindfulness, deep breathing, and any other calming technique we can employ, otherwise you spin around on a merry-go-round of worry, unable to stop. After reading the Professor’s opinions and science, I started watching my patterns of sleeplessness and they fell in line with his predictions. Oddly, after reading his thoughts I was then able to stop the parade of catastrophes from slamming around inside my brain and causing me anguish. “It’s just barbed-wire thinking,” I say out loud, conjuring up a chuckle if I can. As a result, sleep seems to come easier. It’s not fool proof, but it certainly has helped the self-abuse at 3 a.m, has lessened the finger-pointing and unkind words I hurl at myself. Thank you, Professor Murray.