January 2016

I get to think and talk about insomnia a lot, because it is such a common symptom in my therapy clients (at least three-quarters of them) and because I’ve had plenty of it myself over the years. (Here is my advice for insomniacs.) Based on my experience, I’d like to propose a pattern of insomnia that I believe is the most common and hardest to overcome kind of insomnia: structural insomnia.

Imagine you were held prisoner for an interrogation. Your captors might try to make you pliable by depriving you of sleep. Maybe they don’t let you lie down, or force you to do some kind of work instead of sleep, or force you to drink caffeine to keep you awake, or use lights, sounds, music, or movement to keep you from sleeping. The lack of sleep you experience would be structural insomnia: lack of sleep created by your waking or sleeping environment, or by bad scheduling.

That would be a pretty cruel way to treat someone else, but when we do it to ourselves it seems pretty normal. Here are some of the most common ways we torture ourselves with structural insomnia:

We create sleeping spaces that are not dark, quiet, still, and/or comfortable.

We use caffeine less than 6 hours before wanting to fall asleep. It takes your liver 6 hours to process caffeine. You have to give it enough time to do it’s job.

We expose ourselves to light right up to when we want to fall asleep. Light tells your brain it’s day, which keeps it from producing the hormone that pressures and allows you to fall asleep.

We work up to the last minute, or stew on something provocative. You have to give yourself some mellow transition time between being on the ball and asleep.

We do not allow ourselves enough time fall asleep and sleep adequately before we have to wake up in the morning. This is a big one! If you need to wake up at 6am, you must be lying down in the dark, doing nothing but trying to fall asleep by 9:30pm in order to get 8 hours of sleep. And that’s if you can fall asleep in 30 minutes. If you know it takes you two hours to fall asleep, you need to schedule ten hours in bed to get your eight.

We wake up at night and shine light in our eyes. Phones, clocks, TV, refrigerator lights, etc.

We set an object right by our head that will randomly light up, play music, buzz, or make other alarm-like sounds. Phones, of course. Turn them off.

If you agree that it would be torture, or at least mistreatment, if you did this stuff to someone else, consider not doing it to yourself!

I’m still investigating bullying and interventions for bullied kids. Most of what I’ve come across is about how to support kids in not fighting back and telling an adult if they are getting bullied. Another take is learning the language of violence to become less of a target. Here are two videos about that.

The first video is a very short one (just watch the first 10 seconds), of a kid getting beaten up in a locker room. The second is a documentary of that same kid getting trained at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy. It’s a commercial for the Gracies, but I found it moving to watch them work with this kid, give him some traction in this situation. They show him self defense stuff and, building on that confidence, how to hold himself socially so that he’ll be less likely to need to fight. That’s what I’m most interested in, the reduction in violence.


Some folks think that learning to fight is a bad way to reduce violence, and as far as I know it’s still an empirical question, if knowing martial arts reduces the amount of school fighting you will become involved in. What protects them from the instrument fallacy, for example? If your hammer is Jiu-Jitsu, won’t more confrontations look like inevitable fights?

My guess, though, is that it does reduce violence, at least outside of formal sparring. There’s a potential leveling up, developmentally, in learning a martial art. At a certain age, establishing a dominance hierarchy makes developmental sense. Knowing how to handle oneself in violent situations, feeling less helpless and scared, could decrease the chances of a traumatic event slowing your progress out of that dominance-hierarchy stage. At the same time, martial arts usually come along with an ethical code, to use your skills only to defend yourself or someone else, for example. Any sufficiently sophisticated ethical code which is internalized will also help a kid progress out of might-makes-right. It will also likely help other kids around them do the same, just by seeing higher level ethics in action.