Sleep, let’s all just agree, is nature’s finest supplement. It aids recovery, prompts growth hormone circulation, improves protein synthesis and restores bones, organs and immune cells. I mostly hate it when people say ‘If you don’t do [X] you’re wasting your time in the gym’ – usually, it’s nonsense – but in the case of getting adequate sleep, it’s almost true.
I’ve talked before about how to sleep better generally. Here, I’d like to talk about one specific (and lesser-known) practice that’s helped me sleep better.
So: sometimes, I wake up in the night and silently freak out. Apparently, this isn’t uncommon. Reasons vary: sometimes I’ll worry about the future of the industry I work in, other times I panic about whether the whole economy is a dying mess and I’ll have to work until I’m 80, doing whatever the 2050 equivalent of helping furious shoppers with the self-checkout is. Occasionally my subconscious gets really fixated on something like Gulf Stream Reversal or the possibility of a China/Japan incident over the Senkaku island or how superintelligent AI could accidentally make us all into jam, but that’s less common. Rational/irrational: it varies. The main thing is, it stops me from sleeping. And it isn’t productive.
Fortunately, Professor Steve Peters, consultant to cycling’s Team Sky and the English rugby team, knows how to fix this. He suggests thinking of the brain as three separate parts:
The Human: The frontal lobe, which is responsible for rational decision-making and logic. It’s the part that wants you to be happy and content. The ‘real’ you, if you want.
The Computer: The parietal system, spread throughout the brain, which stores values, beliefs and behaviours, and acts incredibly quickly, with basically no conscious input. It just runs the programmes it’s got.
The Chimp: The limbic system, which offers emotional responses to situations – which can be positive or negative – and is usually the one for anxiety, fear or despair.
Professor Peters’ entire book is excellent, and deals with much more than sleeping well, and you should read it as soon as possible. But for the purpose of this article, I think the most important points are these:
The chimp is stronger than you.
The chimp is not good or bad. It is JUST A CHIMP.
How does this relate to waking up in the middle of the night and freaking out? Well, here is how I now visualise the conversations I used to have with my inner chimp:
Chimp: Hey buddy. Buddy? Wake up. Ook.
Me: (drooling into pillow) …whuh?
Chimp: Listen, I’ve been thinking: you know they’re making robots that can write news stories right now, right? And there are all these kids out there willing to work for free, and…
Me: Wait, what the fuck? Why have you woken me up to talk about this?
Chimp: Dude, you need to…
Me: No, seriously, shut up. It’s 2AM. I have to work in the morning.
Chimp: Oh well I was trying to be nice, but since you’re being like this I guess I’ll just remind you that YOU PROBABLY AREN’T PAYING ENOUGH INTO YOUR PENSION AND YOU HAVE TO SOMEHOW KEEP PAYING A MORTGAGE FOR THE NEXT TWO DECADES. OOK! OOK! EEK!
[Chimp smashes symbols together, etc.]
Chimp: IT’S GOING TO BE A LONG NIGHT BUDDY.
Okay. Peters suggests that, at this stage, rather than dismissing the chimp’s concerns – remember, you aren’t stronger than him, and he can’t just be ignored – you accept them as valid, because after all it is not really a chimp but your own limbic system freaking out about things that it thinks are important. And the funny thing is, this works. You cannot tell the chimp to shut up: you can reason with the chimp. Here’s how that goes (in my mind).
Chimp: Hey bro? Bro? Can we talk?
Me: (splayed across bed like a starfish) …whuh?
Chimp: Listen, I’ve been worrying about work again. I read one of those robot news stories, and it’s really good. It had jokes.
Me: Huh. Interesting. Okay man, well, if you’re concerned about this we should talk about it.
Me: Of course! I mean, listen, there are no positive actions I can take right now, because it’s the middle of the night. Also, it would really help me out to get some sleep. But seriously, if this still feels like a problem to you in the morning, then there are definitely steps we can take to address it.
Chimp: Oh. Thanks, bro. Hrrn. Ook.
Me: No problem, little guy. I’m going back to sleep now, okay?
Now, this is an abbreviated form of the conversation, and I don’t know why my inner chimp talks like Channing Tatum in a bromantic comedy. Also, perhaps I am crazy. But I’ll tell you what: I sleep like I’ve been tranquilised with an elephant gun. So, to review: when you wake up and freak out:
- Acknowledge the chimp’s concerns.
- Tell the chimp that now is not the time.
- Reassure the chimp that, if he’s still anxious in the morning, you’ll get right on it.
- Sleep (and grow ripped).
Boom. Professor Peters, I hope, would be proud. Does this work for you? Does something else? Let me know in the comments. Ooook.