Dear Dr. Peacock,
I seem to have developed a problem with sleeping. Historically, I’ve been pretty good at sleeping but the past few years it’s been very disturbed. I fall asleep easily because I’m so tired but then I wake up about 3 hours later at 2 am in a panic. My heart is usually racing and I’m often sweating. This all began after the presidential election. It was like a light switch. Please help!
—Sleepless Nights in Stuyvesant Heights
This political landscape is really something, isn’t it? Our society is really good at supporting the illusion that our minds and bodies are separate independent entities that have no effect on each other. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. What’s happening in our bodies can affect our minds and what’s happening in our minds can, indeed, affect our bodies also. That’s what makes this kind of pattern so seemingly unstoppable. It turns into this vicious cycle that feeds on itself like a confused snake eating its own tail.
Once upon a time, I was treating about 100 patients a week when all of a sudden, a strange event changed the landscape of my practice. My demographic was mixed and the health issues that people presented at my clinic were quite diverse at the time. About 10% of my patient population presented with anxiety, depression, or some variety of emotional upset. The other 90% was a mix of pain, menstrual cycle issues, digestive disorders and the like. The week after our last presidential election my anxiety/depression patient percentage shot up to well over 50%… almost overnight. So please take solace in knowing that you are not alone. Many citizens of our nation (especially queer, POC, undocumented, etc) are also quite sleepless and anxious since that fateful day back in November of 2016.
Since there are somatic (body) symptoms as well as psycho-emotional symptoms, I would recommend addressing the mind-body continuum with a variety of approaches to engage the physical body and also the mind. To be honest, I generally always recommend this, but it’s especially important when emotional symptoms begin to affect bodily function and sleep. Try to integrate some different therapies such as acupuncture, massage, yoga, and meditation as well as some type of talk therapy. Not every modality is right for every person in every situation so perhaps try a couple to see which feels right and produces the desired effects. It’s important to note that some of these may take a while to have an effect so give it a few tries.
And while somatic therapy like those listed above can have a profound impact on emotional health, I also recommend addressing the mind directly through some kind of talk therapy. My favorite therapy modality for such is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT tends to have fast and effective results and can really assist with this kind of behavioral pattern. One person I refer patients to all the time for help with insomnia is Dr. Sasha Berger. Dr. Berger has a ton of experience dealing with sleep issues. I caught up with her this week and asked her about CBT for this kind of politically induced insomnia. She had this to say:
“This political climate doesn’t exactly breed sweet dreams. Traditional sleep hygiene can definitely help—reducing screen time, limiting naps, getting good light in the morning, going to sleep and waking up a regular time. But sometimes insomnia is an insidious beast and exists alongside lots of self-blame. If you have been struggling for more than a month, and that weighted sleep mask isn’t doing the trick, you may need some more help—and no shame in that! CBT for insomnia is a short-term and effective therapy that can help you get the rest you need to fight the good fight.”
The other thing I would recommend is to take some action that will give you your power back. In situations like these, I find that some people feel anxious partly because they feel powerless. While I do recommend regular “news fasting” (no political news Monday, Wednesday or Friday for instance) it may be worthwhile to volunteer or donate. Virtually every agency committed to changing the current regime will gladly accept your time or dollars. By doing something productive with your anxiety, you may be able to rest easier knowing that you’re putting some sweat equity into solving the problem.
I hope this helps you get some z’s. And remember, election day is less than a year away. We all may be sleeping more soundly then… hopefully.
In Good Health,
Dr. Christopher Peacock