I’m a night owl. If left to my own devices, I will stay up late and sleep in late. Before I had a kid, my creative streak would hit anywhere between 12am and 3am, and I would stay up until whatever project I was working on was finished. I would do my best thinking during this time. I would read and contemplate and draw and pray until my eyes got heavy. Things have changed since I had my son (and had a full-time job), but my tendency is to lean toward this schedule. Nighttime holds mystery and a different energy, and I love it.
Unless I’m struggling with my mental health. Then nighttime is a nightmare.
I know when my mental health is deteriorating because I will begin hating nighttime. I remember going through one of my seasons of anxiety and nervously watching the sun set, dreading the night. When I’m not in a good place, nighttime is when I feel alone. I feel disconnected. Unsafe. Scared. Sad.
I don’t know why it took me so long to figure out (maybe because we don’t talk about our struggles often?), but it’s not just me. Nighttime is hard for most people who are struggling. Whether it’s because of mental health issues, relationship troubles, financial problems, worry, sadness, etc. Any discomfort that we feel will be felt more intensely and intimately at night.
Natural Light, Sleep, and Mental Health
The scientific aspect of why we struggle more at night is not my primary focus, but it at least needs to be addressed because it matters. First, natural light has been proven to positively affect our mental health. When we are struggling in any way, it’s like our mood can have a direct correlation with the amount of light around us. When it’s bright, we often feel happier, and when it’s dark, we often feel sadder. A quick google search will show you just how much of an impact natural light can have on depression.
Secondly, have you ever noticed how much harder everything is when we’re tired? Everything hurts worse and hits us harder when our bodies need sleep. When I’m tired, I cannot function. I’m a wreck. When Law was a newborn, I literally googled “can you be so tired you die”. Sleep deprivation and insomnia are both closely linked with our mental health. When it’s nighttime, whether you feel “sleepy” or not, chances are your body is ready for rest. When we’re suffering, sleep often eludes us, making us less capable of successfully navigating uncomfortable feelings. We tend to wallow in our anxiety, depression, stress, etc. when we’re tired. We don’t have the energy to pull ourselves out of it.
So you see, scientifically it makes sense that nighttime will be harder than daytime when we’re struggling. But there’s more. I think it goes deeper than that.
We are creatures who operate in a culture of constant distraction. We are constantly multitasking. We are on our phones, on Netflix, on drugs, eating, staying busy, etc. etc. etc. We operate on distraction. And I’m not judging anyone, because distraction is my drug of choice. I love distraction. My average screen time on my phone is embarrassing. It’s like I get off on the art of busy-ness, and I tend to run and run and run until I literally make myself sick. I’m working on it, okay?
All types of addiction are rooted in distraction. We actively avoid addressing those traumas, or those feelings of isolation, or that shame, or whatever it is we’re running from with drugs or alcohol or sex or shopping or eating or whatever. I could write a book on this truth alone.
But when nighttime comes around, our distractions aren’t as available. We juggle and balance and distract all day long, but when the sun sets and it’s time to get in our beds, the shit settles. And if we’re not prepared to sit with it and sift through it, it hits us like a train. A shit train.
So how do we handle this? Everyone has their own methods of shit-sifting. Journaling, painting, meditating, yoga-ing, and so on. The more you sit with your shit during the day – even if it’s just 5 minutes here and there – the less it’ll assault you at night. I actually have a post on the importance of being still here, if you’d like to read up on it a little more. I also recommend reading Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist and First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson, both of which have taught me to better sit with my shit.
The other reason I think nighttime is so damn hard for so many people is because we can feel so utterly alone. Not only are our friends and family already asleep, but it seems the whole world is, too. It can feel like even God is asleep in the middle of the night. I tend to always be the last person to fall asleep, but when I’m not, there is this unusual comfort that comes from Chase still being awake. Like I’m not alone. Like I’m safe.
We need connection. We desperately need it. We’re made for it. Yes, even introverts and even those who act like they are above needing other people.
Over and over again, we are seeing studies that prove that loneliness is a health issue. Studies show that being lonely and feeling alone is as dangerous as smoking FIFTEEN cigarettes per day, and those who struggle with loneliness are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those who are in community.
We feel loneliness and isolation in our bones – in our very being. It’s a gut-wrenching and visceral feeling. Being alone, being independent in every area doesn’t make us strong; it makes us weak. It’s killing us. And it’s the one thing that makes our suffering seems so final and infinite.
One of the most destructive parts of clinician mental health disorders and trauma is isolation. We feel like we’re the only ones who have ever gone through what we’re going through, and we feel like there is no possible way anyone can understand our struggles. We feel so alone.
And this feeling is magnified 100 fold at night.
So what can help? Affirmations can help. Insight can help. Pets can help. Prayer can help. For me, though, reading is usually the salve for isolation in the middle of the night. Did you know King David felt this exact same way over 3000 years ago?
I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
– Psalm 6:6 (ESV)
King David is thought to have written Psalm 6 around 1015 B.C. That’s 3,033 years ago. Somehow, there’s freedom in knowing that struggling during the night is an ancient part of the human experience. We’re not the only ones. And that means that we’re not isolated. We’re not alone.
Even Jesus stayed up the night before he was betrayed in Gethsemane to pray, saying, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death,” and asked his disciples to stay awake with him (Mark 14:32-34, ESV). Even for Jesus, there’s something incredibly comforting in knowing that we aren’t alone in our aloneness.
This, Too, Shall Pass
The wonderful thing about night is that it always gives way to morning. We have another day to try again. Even on your worst night, you just have to survive. It will pass. Sit with it, and know that you’re not alone.
Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise.
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables