My Windup Brain

Unhealthy sleeping habits of an over thinker

I try and pry open my eyes, but they’re viscous, like two dead moths stuck to a window. I look for a line, the silhouette of the curtain, but the glow of winter is different to the bloom of warmer months. I haven’t really slept in two weeks. Sure I’ve “slept” but only when my brain has reached the point of exhaustion. And I wouldn’t call it sleep, 2–3 hours a night is not sleep — it’s a kind of incubation.

I turn and lay on my back. Time is elastic. I haven’t really been awake or asleep — I’ve been floating somewhere in between, treading the broken white lines … waiting for the sluggish footfalls of dreams. Now there’s a faint blue incision of morning seeping through the window and my eyes sting hot from another lost night. I feel my heart throbbing low and heavy in its cage, like the slowing of hooves after an all night trot. ‘Fuck,’ I say to the gloom. ‘Fuck.’ I want to scream but my body is like deadwood and my mind is at sea.

I did all the right things: I avoided using my phone an hour before bed, I meditated, wrote in my diary, did a little reading (with a real book) and drank some herbal tea. I did everything you’re supposed to do, and when that failed I took some melatonin and some useless herbal supplements. I felt tired, even groggy. But my mind is a grinding engine fueled by a ceaseless fire of activity, when I want it to be a manicured Japanese koi pond — a tranquil sea of zen. The factory of my mind continues to churn even after I no longer register my own thoughts.

Insomnia is now an extremely common condition and a serious health risk. In Australia about one third of Australians experience insomnia at some point in their lives, and roughly 25 percent of Americans experience acute insomnia every year.

Perhaps it’s the start of a kind of sleepless revolution where more cafes, shops and stores burn the midnight oil — much like they do in Berlin. And what will happen to the insomniac leaders of this vampiric revolution? Will their attention, alertness, concentration and reasoning be impaired? That would be a big yes — considering that during the night our sleep cycles help consolidate memories. Without proper sleep and restorative cognitive function you’ll soon be lumbering through a swampland of forgetfulness or may have trouble remembering what you recently learned.

But why does the brain refuse to shut down even when you’re exhausted? The National Sleep Foundation lists the following medical conditions as reasons for insomnia:

  • Nasal/sinus allergies
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as reflux
  • Endocrine problems such as hyperthyroidism
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease
  • Chronic pain
  • Low back pain

They also mention certain medications as an underlying cause and certain sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome — a neurological condition in which (you guessed it) a person has an uncomfortable urge to move his or her legs — and sleep apnea. The website also lists particular stimulants that may be keeping you awake, such as caffeine, sugar, alcohol and nicotine. Even eating before bed is a bad idea, especially foods that are high in sugar, and it’s also important to factor in your lifestyle and how it may affect your sleeping patterns (sorry shift workers).

Insomnia itself can bring on changes in mood, and shifts in hormones and physiology, and can lead to both psychiatric issues and insomnia at the same time. Sleep problems may represent a symptom of depression, and the risk of severe insomnia is much higher in patients with major depressive disorders. And sleep deprivation can also lead to other serious health problems: heart disease, heart attack, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, stroke. The list goes on … I hold my breath and wonder if my heart is going to suddenly stop beating.

Overloaded and primed for burnout

Our brains can only assimilate so much information in one day. In fact, the human brain is loaded with about 34 GB of information on a daily basis. On average people receive about 105,000 words (or 23 words per second) every 12 hours via smartphones, the Internet, email, television, radio, newspapers and books. Then add in pictures, videos, games, etc. That’s a lot of information. In fact, our brains are now overloaded with so much information that even a powerful computer would struggle to keep up. However, the human eyes and ears might pick up a deluge of information, but we can’t really assimilated it all, and most of it turns into a garble of white-noise. Noise that can “windup” the brain.

The windup brain begins to unpack the day’s data just before sleep — analyzing and number crunching through memories in order to prepare for the real work. During sleep the brain is actually incredibly active with neurons firing away. But it is what happens during sleep that is so important for healthy cognitive function. The body goes through a repair process where the brain “cleans itself” during sleep and forms new memories, and this cleaning is done by the glymphatic system, as it clears out waste products generated by brain cells.

The brain only has limited energy at its disposal, and it appears that it must choose between two different functional states — awake and aware, or asleep and cleaning up. — Dr. Maiken Nedergaard

Until recently, I had to take time off work due to my insomnia. The impact was becoming critical, and it scared me. I would lie awake thinking, What if I forget how to sleep? Will I drop dead? Well, the human body literally can not go without sleep for more than a few days, so at some point sleep would take me whether I wanted it to or not. And while I didn’t have an immediate solution for my zombie existence, I suspected the root cause was anxiety.

Sometimes anxiety is hidden from us

Many of us live in a constant state of anxiety and yet we’re not aware of it. We live in a world that is incredibly demanding and each of us has numerous responsibilities, as well as endless distractions to keep us busy. Our status driven society expects us to try and be the best at everything we do, as we compete in the greatest human race of all time — a competition designed to stretch us until we break. And then after a 9 hour day and bustling through crowds and traffic, we finally make it home. We might take a 10 minute nap, but then we are expected to hit the gym, cook a meal, take care of the family (or the pets) and then finally retire to bed … to sleep.

It is a system that is designed for us to “run the race” twenty-four-seven — a society that demands superhuman feats, tireless motivation and intellectual verve in almost everything we do. You only need to look at the increasingly flooded job market, how dating apps and social media aggregate user’s data, or the hundreds of self improvement books that saturate the market. We’re all just trying to keep up in the marathon of success. But is it OK to tell yourself: I don’t think I can do this. I need a break. I need to unplug and not be overwhelmed with information saturation? For those of us who have not been blessed with that instant off switch, we will remain wired and alert — neurons firing even when we are so tired our eyes are burning in their sockets.

Sometimes anxiety goes undetected. Sometimes the underlying problem is unconscious, chemical or something hidden.

Anxiety symptoms that can lead to insomnia include:

  • Tension
  • Getting caught up in thoughts about past events
  • Excessive worrying about future events
  • Feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities
  • A general feeling of being overstimulated

So what can we do when we live in such a dynamic and overstimulated world obsessed with success? Simple: downsize. In Japan it is recognized as a symbol called kanji. It has 18 strokes and is learnt when children are in grade 6.

Imagine choosing the way of simplicity — only choosing the things that truly benefit us. And not just limiting material objects, but our jobs, friendships, social groups and any time consuming obligations that may hinder our happiness, energy and health.

I decided to approach my desire for simplicity first by de-cluttering my life. I began closing certain email accounts, unsubscribing to 70 percent of my emails and removing all the apps that were not serving me any use. Apple now “offloads” these apps automatically, but why not just delete the clutter? Next I made a choice regarding how many shifts I wanted to work per week and limited them down to 3 shifts a week (not everyone has the luxury of doing this but it’s worth a try). I also spring-cleaned the house, rearranged the furniture (never been a Feng Shui guy but I’ll try anything) and threw away some old clothes. A renewing of the self can sometimes begin on the outside before journeying within.

Finally, I renounced some particular toxic relationships in my life that I knew were draining my energy and contributing to the anxiety. This was a difficult decision and I had to be careful to not detach in a resentful or spiteful way — so I wished them the best (in my heart) and blocked them with compassion. Much to my surprise I instantly felt a shift, I felt lighter. It reminded me of how we easily we can hold onto negative people and remain exposed to unhealthy patterns without realizing it (a whole other article there). Then I decided to make a 5 year life plan, and you know what? It stressed me out, so I narrowed it down to 1 year. And that’s when I discovered the root of my anxiety: I had been worrying about the distant future in some kind of subconscious way. My underlying anxiety was connected to big picture concerns — where will I be in 10 years? Will I meet my future wife? When will I finish my novel? Will I own my own home? When, how, what, where … it was all future. I mean, it’s great to make plans, but there is a great and simple quote about worry:

Worry is like praying to the devil

When we worry we invite a future full of uncertainly and fear — we feed the devil. We rob ourselves of the present moment when we get caught up in future status or success, and in doing so we can rob ourselves of much needed sleep. My sleep is vital to my well-being and I need it in order to function as a healthy, productive and content person. And maybe that should be my word of the week … contentment. To learn to be content with all I have now — to realize that in a way I have already reached my goals and I am successful because I am trying to be the best version of myself I can be. I am simply being and perhaps that is enough, and that concept of completeness brings some peace to my life. So if it’s a choice between insomnia and sleep, worry and contentment, then I know what I’m choosing before bed.