Sleep is easy to take for granted — until you have trouble doing it. Aside from a few isolated occasions when my active imagination made it hard for me to settle down at bedtime, I was a good sleeper as a child, and well into adulthood.

Now, however, and for some years past, I more often take a long time to fall asleep, or else I’m awakened by a noise or some internal signal I’m unaware of. Many nights I do go to sleep easily and only wake up in the pre-dawn hours for the same thing that wakes all older folks up in the pre-dawn hours. Then I go back to bed and sleep some more.

In the early dawns of May and June, I hear the birds greeting the new day and close my eyes to listen to their calls. I can’t help enjoying their happy, hopeful sound as I lie in bed, not really thinking about anything, and eventually nod off again.

But sometimes I wake up for one reason or another and start thinking. Not little fragments of this and that, but real, discursive thoughts that, once started, not only bring me to full consciousness, but keep me awake, sometimes for hours. Once on this thought train, I’m usually headed for trouble: either the Slough of Despond, the Fretful Mountains or the dreaded Lake of Self-Pity, all treacherous landscapes for a person trying to go back to sleep. The darkness seems to magnify the feelings and the tendency of the thoughts to go around and around and around.

What to do?

The first step, always, is to realize that I’m engaged in fruitless rumination that is unlikely to yield any useful insight or plan I can act on. Once I’ve consciously  determined to get off the mental merry-go-round, there are various tactics that may help.

I used to have good success with using a boring mental task to lull myself back to sleep. Something like coming up with as many feminine names as possible for each letter of the alphabet, and then as many masculine names as possible. But now, even that is too much like thinking and keeps my mind alert.

I have tried counting my blessings — and they are legion — and this at least often calms my mind, even if I don’t go back to sleep. Or I’ll try to envision the faces of all the people I have loved, not necessarily romantically, and those who have loved me, which is also good for at least interrupting the distressing thoughts.

If stronger measures are required, I’ll do what I call “changing the subject” and actually get up and go downstairs for a while, maybe get a glass of milk and read poetry. After about an hour, I’ll go back to bed and sometimes fall asleep.

In the midst of all this, I always find it helpful to remind myself that one night of poor sleep is unlikely to hurt my functioning much, and I will probably sleep better the next night. Worrying about not sleeping is not conducive to sleep.

Then there are the nights when my inability to go off to dreamland and stay there happily for eight hours or so seems to be the fault of something — or someone — beyond my control. Maureen and I recently spent a night in an Airbnb where we shared a bed that was not large enough for the two of us and there was a clock in a nearby room that chimed every quarter-hour. I didn’t hear every time the clock sounded, but way more than I wanted to.

A couple of weeks later, we were staying in a motel near Presque Isle on vacation and someone in the adjoining room left the TV on for a good part of the night and had a visitor who arrived around 3 a.m. I must have decided 20 times to go knock on his door, and just as many times decided that was a bad idea.

The killer about times when some thing or person seems to be the cause of my wakefulness is that I get annoyed about it — not a good precursor to sleep at all — and then I start to feel frustrated, powerless and resentful toward what I regard as the cause of my insomnia. If there were a song for such a state of mind, it might be titled, with apologies to Pete Seeger (and The Byrds), “Churn, churn, churn.” In order to relax enough to fall asleep, you  have to, well, relax!

I probably come by my senior sleeplessness honestly. My father was the same way as he aged — he was very sensitive to noises during the night and had trouble sleeping away from home. Because of his insomnia, he sometimes invented games to play in his head. For example, he would try to make words using only the ZIP Code abbreviations of the 50 U.S. states. The longest he managed was CA-LA-MA-RI, which was pretty fishy.

So far, my sleep troubles are more the exception than the rule, and I hope that continues to be true. If not, I can always remember my dad and count my blessings.

Republican Journal editor Sarah E. Reynolds is a longtime employee of Courier Publications.

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