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Wellness Matters: Nightmares, guilt, anger and even spiritual turmoil can impact sleep

By Marty Seitz
KyForward columnist

In previous columns I have addressed the cognitive, behavioral, biological, environmental and sensory factors that can negatively affect sleep. In this one I will complete the series on sleep by discussing the following six additional sets of problematic sleep factors, as well as resources for overcoming them: emotional, ethical, spiritual, subconscious, interpersonal and motivational.

Emotional factors

If and when we perceive ourselves to be threatened physically or psychologically, our bodies react by preparing us physically to respond combatively or to run. This fight or flight response happens reflexively and includes releasing epinephrine (adrenaline), increasing heart rate and blood pressure, and increasing muscle tension, all of which can make going to sleep and staying asleep difficult.

If you are thinking about threatening situations as you try to sleep, you will also likely experience accompanying emotions, such as anxiety, fear and anger. For example, if you think, “I’m behind in my work. My boss is going to be upset with me tomorrow,” your body will respond with some degree of fight or flight preparation, and you will likely experience a negative emotion.

As you notice the bodily changes and the emotions that amplify and color them, both bodily and emotional reactions may intensify to the point that they significantly hamper your ability to sleep. If, on the other hand, you go to bed thinking about things to which you are looking forward, you may experience feelings of anticipation and excitement, which, though positive, may also be physiologically arousing, thereby interfering with sleep. And thinking about tasks that weren’t finished or that need to be done can lead to frustration, which may also trigger fight or flight responses.

In earlier articles, I discussed several means of dealing with thoughts, behaviors, physical reactions and environmental factors that disturb sleep. Because each part of us affects every other part, acting to neutralize problematic cognitive, behavioral, physical and/or environmental sleep factors may also neutralize emotional factors that threaten sleep. You can calm your emotional reactions in three ways:

• You can talk yourself down if you can convince yourself that no serious threat really exists.

• You can counter alarming thoughts that lead to alarming emotions by taking direct action to deal with any real threats.

• You can encourage yourself by thinking that you have the resources to overcome, cope with or survive and thrive, no matter what happens.

Emotional and ethical factors

Two other emotions can hamper sleep: disgust and guilt. These emotions interact with our ethical/moral capacities. If we judge others or ourselves to have acted wrongly or to be bad people, we may feel disgust and/or guilt toward others or ourselves. These emotions can also trigger arousal that hinders sleep.

Guilt feelings may not always be warranted — we can feel false guilt when we have really done nothing wrong. David Seamands’ book, Healing Grace, addresses inappropriate guilt feelings. Of course, sometimes we feel guilty for good reason. If we have wronged others, Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Languages of Apology, gives helpful guidance on alleviating real guilt. If we feel disgust for others or ourselves, the book To Forgive Is Human, by M. E. McCullough, S. J. Sandage, and E. L. Worthington, has instructions for working toward appropriate forgiveness.

Spiritual factors

Three resources that address sleep-affecting spiritual factors from a Christian perspective are Charles Page’s Surrendered Sleep: A Biblical Perspective, Billy Wilkins’ (of Christian band Third Day) The Wesley Sleep Program: Biblical Rest without Medications (vol. 1, audio CD), and the audiobook CD by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Guard Us Sleeping: Compline Psalms, Prayers, and Hymns for the Night. This last item is a wonderful resource with sleep-promoting scriptures, prayers and hymns.

Subconscious factors

Sometimes dreams are a problematic factor for sleep. Some people have bad dreams, nightmares or night terrors that awaken them, thereby disturbing their sleep. Others find that they avoid going to sleep because they are afraid they’ll have bad dreams or nightmares if they do fall asleep. Still others may avoid sleep because even though their dreams are not necessarily bad or scary, they are confusing, perplexing, chaotic and/or disconcerting in some way.  

Let me suggest two books that may be of use in dealing with unsettling dreams:

Dream Work in Therapy: Facilitating Exploration, Insight and Action by C. E. Hill (ed.). Though written primarily for therapists and counselors, it may be accessible for many non-therapist readers. It gives instructions in working with regular dreams, as well as with nightmares, from a researched multitheoretical perspective.

The Post-Traumatic Insomnia Workbook: A Step-by-Step Program for Overcoming Sleep Problems after Trauma by K. E. Thompson is an excellent self-help manual for dealing with problematic dreams and other sleep problems that are suspected to be the result of persons having experienced some form of trauma.

Interpersonal/relational factors

Interpersonal conflict may cause sleep problems. In a previous article, I mentioned some of the practical relational issues between sleep partners that can interfere with sleep: bad breath, room temperature, mattress softness, lighting or bedding preference differences, and weight differences that cause gravity wells.

In addition, negative thoughts and emotions carried over from the day, unfinished business and arguments may leave people feeling emotionally or psychologically threatened while they are trying to go to sleep, causing the fight or flight response. Conversely, sometimes instead of conflict, couples may not have spent enough time together before bedtime to talk and to be emotionally or physically intimate such that their couple time eats into their sleep time. One person may want to talk when the other is sleepy.

I wish easy fixes were available for these relational problems, but the solutions are not always simple. Ideally you won’t “let the sun go down while you are still angry,” as quoted from the Bible, but at times a person can’t practically afford to stay up until an argument is settled either because one or the other must get sleep to be able to attend safely to work the next day or the other can’t think clearly enough to engage in fruitful discussion once his or her bedtime has passed.

One must also “count the cost” of attempting to finish a discussion/argument at bedtime. You’ll be better off trying to work through disagreements well before bedtime, but sometimes you may need to agree to postpone finishing a conversation until a more opportune time. However, do decide on a specific place and time to continue talking before going to sleep. Similarly, try to schedule sufficient time before bedtime to catch up on the day and/or for intimacy or at least make a specific date for quality couple’s time.

Motivational factors

The last area I’ll deal with for aiding sleep is motivation. First, let me go over some reasons why you might not be motivated to follow through with implementing any of the suggestions in this series:

• Being run down — taking the path of least resistance, doing what you’ve always done, because you have no or low energy due to poor sleep;

• Feeling reactant — believing you’re being forced to do something, you naturally react against being controlled;

• Rewarding — what you are currently doing with your sleep may reward you in some way, so you resist giving up your habits (e.g., wanting time for yourself when everyone else is asleep);

• Repelling — something about your sleep is repellent (e.g., nightmares), so you’re avoiding it and any efforts that would cause you to sleep more;

• Having rival values — you may have rival values or needs that currently are more important than sleep, but with some problem-solving you might be able to have both your need for sleep and other needs met.

While the entire series on sleep can help you resolve these issues, I am not insisting you try any of the recommendations I’ve made. In fact, just to keep from giving any such impression, I am telling you here, “Do not under any circumstance try any of these suggestions.”

Just remember, if you take your need for good quality and sufficient quantity of sleep for granted, you might impair your health seriously over time. How you sleep matters. Learn to sleep well, so you don’t go to the Big Sleep prematurely.

Marty Seitz is an associate professor of psychology in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Asbury University, where he has taught since 1989. He got his bachelor’s in psychology from Asbury University, studied at Asbury Theological Seminary, got a master’s degree in community counseling and a doctoral degree in counseling psychology from Georgia State University. In addition to his teaching, he has practiced as a licensed psychologist in Lexington since 1989, doing individual and couples’ counseling and has been working with the Access Wellness Group since its inception.

You might also be interested in reading other columns in this series on sleep:

We’re a sleep deprived nation because we don’t make sleep a priority

Want to get a better night’s sleep? Then it’s time to change your behavior

Sleep – or lack of it – can be affected by many factors

What you see, hear, taste, smell and touch can help – or hinder – your sleep

Read more Wellness Matters columns here.

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