Fight Or (Sleepy) Flight?
Whether it was Ernest Hemingway, my Grandad, or someone else entirely, one quote will always define sleep for me: “I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” Or at least, kind of.
If stressed, I go to sleep. If scared or anxious, I go to sleep. If unhappy or sad, I go to sleep. To know that sleep will always be there as a safe space, and one where I can experience peace and protection from the problems I happen to encounter in everyday life, always provides me with an enormous sense of security.
Of course, you don’t need to be a medical professional to find this slightly surprising, considering the human body’s usual reaction to any form of stress usually culminating in a more rapid heartbeat, shorter and more frequent breaths, and excessive sweating. But why then, do I (and so many others) choose to fall asleep, when others would prepare to fight?
Recognised and codified in 1978, the phenomenon is called “learned helplessness”. Developed during experiences from one’s youth that were distinguished by a perceived lack of control, these experiences have since encouraged a sense of helplessness within the individual, which can (to varying degrees) apply to anxiety-provoking situations later in life. In other words, due to an inability to affect the world around them, and based upon intense or numerous occurrences in early life, the individual regularly concludes that survival would be best served by resting, rather than by fighting.
Indeed, it may sound somewhat counter-intuitive to lay back and go to sleep in the face of a presumably dangerous or tricky situation. But then, “learned helplessness” should not be viewed as synonymous with ‘avoidance’.
Rather, resting in the midst of a ‘troubling moment’ or what not, can supposedly serve to consolidate the person’s most important emotional experiences or reactions, and thereby, allow the initially stressful experience to potentially, become more well-ordered within the mind. Interestingly however, such is the significance of the memory consolidation process that occurs during sleep, some have proposed that keeping someone from sleeping in the aftermath of a traumatic event could in fact, treat PTSD. “If you force yourself to stay awake through a period of insomnia,” said Spencer, one of the four authors responsible for the researched paper, “the [traumatic] memory and emotional response will both decay.” This would then mean that by treating sleep as a ‘safe space’, seemingly free from distress or conflict, you could be merely intensifying the emotional memory/trauma, that will eventually be stored in your mind for the foreseeable future.
In a world where we are continuously reaching new, potentially revolutionary, and often paradoxical conclusions in studies concerning sleep and mental health, it can be particularly difficult to decide upon which changes you should apply to your own life, in order to impact positive, meaningful change.
What’s more, simply determining the validity or generalisability of each study can be both time consuming, and add to (rather than ease) our sense of confusion.
I love sleep. And for me, sleep will often be the best coping mechanism imaginable, when wanting to lessen the stress and concerns of everyday life. Are there downsides? Apparently. But unless I experience those ‘downsides’ for myself, I’ll forever remain true to the words of Ernest Hemingway.
Or was it my Grandad?