When I was a little girl, my dad would tell me, “Don’t take your troubles to bed with you.” I was an inveterate worrier. I wanted the hallway light left on near my bedroom in our old farmhouse.
Monsters seemed to lurk, not just under the bed but in every nook and cranny. My imagination was, and remains, lively. My brain sometimes won’t shut down for the night.
When I was very young, I slept in a big bed with my little brother Tommy after he yielded his crib to the newest sibling. I mostly took comfort from his presence, but sometimes I would lie, sleepless and worried, staring at his toddler profile as he slumbered beside me.
I would imagine his image becoming fuzzy and indistinct. Was he my baby brother? Or in the darkness could I imagine him morphing into another threat? It’s funny now, but the humor escaped me then.
What’s ironic is that my dad, with his homespun advice about worry, suffered from intense anxiety and depression, which eventually led to his death. But perhaps that’s not so ironic.
We desperately hope our children can be spared the problems from which we suffer, so if we can offer them advice, even advice we ourselves can’t follow, we try.
This has been an anxious year for many people, and just because some have gotten vaccinations doesn’t mean the anxiety magically disappears. What comes next? Some of the decisions we face now increase our anxiety.
I have never completely overcome my nighttime fears. I still hear my dad’s advice, and often it works well until about 3 or 4 a.m. That seems to be the hour at which my internal alarm occasionally wakes me and my tummy seizes up with worry.
I know I am not alone at this dark hour, as a cohort of insomniacs are out there in the universe with me. Small comfort. But I am also not alone in that God is there as well, fuzzy and indistinct perhaps, but stronger and kinder than any of the unseen troubles that assail me.
Pray-as-you-go.org is a website run by the Jesuits in Britain. They have daily prayers and meditations available, but they also have special retreats and series that cover topics like depression, aging and insomnia. One is called Mental Health Awareness Exercises, and includes a short piece on anxiety.
It certainly doesn’t purport to be a cure-all, but it helps by walking us through Matthew 6:25-27: “Do not worry about your life. … Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?”
The advice is good. For example, consider the lilies of the field, perhaps by taking a daily walk to observe nature and God’s gifts. Daily exercise relieves stress and anxiety.
During this strange year, counselors and therapists have had long waiting lists. If we’re really anxious, we might need to call a hotline or seek immediate help. But at the least, find a friend with whom you feel free to share. Be open. Go ahead and cry.
Consider what you eat at night. I find overeating can lead to sleeplessness, as can an overly warm room. Remember that alcohol, which may seem to make you drowsy, also has stimulant effects and is an unreliable friend.
Perhaps list your worries on a piece of paper and give them to God right before bed.
Sometimes praying, “Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” helps me fall asleep.
And Jesus’ advice sounds a little like Dad’s: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take of itself.”
Caldarola is a columnist for Catholic News Service.