Mar 9, 2009

Sleep over your problems | Blog | Ode Magazine

Sleep over your problems

The popular saying, “Sleep over your problems” is not a cliché. Latest research shows that sleeping over a problem is the best thing to do when you are ridden with doubts. This theory has a sound scientific basis. When you are faced with hard choices and the problem is so overwhelming that it defies every logic or calculations, just go to bed and let your gut instinct become active. A modicum of research evidence suggests that unguarded cerebral activity may do a better job than the conscious raking of brain, to find a solution for your problem.

There are basically two modes of thought: Conscious and Unconscious. In conscious thoughts we contemplate a particular issue or question, mentally list all the relevant information, weigh up all the pros and cons, and then come to a rational decision.

By contrast unconscious thoughts require no focused deliberation or even attention. The answer “just comes’.

Since this mode of thinking require no conscious effort, and generates conclusions that may be tricky, if not impossible to explain, it tends to have the status of poor relation. But why should sleep – as opposed merely to a period of time for unconscious reflection, be helpful?

Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School and centre for Sleep and Cognition in Boston, suspects that it is all to do with memory. Certain phases of sleep seem to provide an opportunity for the brain to decide what experiences it needs to store, and what it can reject. This involves reviewing information required during the day and making new associations between different portions of it.

So the capacity for better decisions and fresh insights that follows sleep might be a fortuitous by-product of a process carried out by the brain for quite different purpose.

However, each one of us has their own ways of coping with problems. I used to watch my mom pick up the needles and start knitting furiously whenever something obviously disturbed her.

Since we were a ‘close-knit family’, we always used to know about each and every happening that occurred inside our household. Her reaching for the knitting basket always made all of us alert that mom is in “one of those moods” and we must make sure not to be in her way.

I would sit at a distance and watch her nimble fingers going expertly in and out through a labyrinth of patterns. She would expertly untie the bunched up wool and wound it around her hands to make fresh balls, and be completely absorbed in her work at hand. This was her specific method of dealing with all her problems.

Perhaps unwinding the bunched up wool and then knitting those intricate patterns gave her a clue to her own knotty issues and by following it out to the end of the loop, untying as she went along made her calm and focused enough later on to come up with solutions, or find a way around the problem.

As the cliché goes, “ like father, like son” or in this case, “ like mother, like daughter”, I discovered that I have more or less acquired the same kind of approach to problem solving in my life, though not exactly the same as mom, because my methods do vary according to the nature of problems.

But before understanding the problems, initially what I apply is a modification of what the experts call, “The Ostrich Syndrome”, wherein an ostrich would bury its head in the sand during sandstorms and wait for it to be over. I deal with problems by turning my head away and distancing myself away immediately from the pestering, nagging and tension filled moments.

I never lie down on a couch, or reach for my bed to sulk. I pick up my car keys and head for a movie hall, go for a long drive or just loiter around at some busy mall. While at it I push away all thoughts from my mind about my specific problem and it sort of neutralizes the intensity of my disturbing thoughts. I often come back with fresh perspectives. Or at least with a lighter heart and calmer brain.

I discovered this method few years ago when I had gone to a doctor for a hint of swollen glands in my neck, and he asked me to go for a biopsy, expressing his doubts that I may be having a cancerous tumor. For someone who is considered as healthy as a horse, and who doesn’t even get a common cold ever, this news was like a bombshell. Since I am also an absolute hypochondriac, I thought I am going to die of a fatal illness. And at 38, I was not ready to die!

Since the very ground from my feet had slipped upon hearing this piece of news, I did not drive back home, as I was already filled with dreadful thoughts of having to leave my kids motherless very soon. I headed for the nearest market and forced myself to get immersed in the happy, bright and shining ambience (my own inner world had darkened) of a busy place. I stopped at a bookshop and just went inside, with no aim of buying anything. Involuntarily I found myself at the health section. Perhaps what they say about subconscious guidance is true!

I browsed through various journals and books and found one on tumors. I flicked through the pages and as I began to read the pages, I found that the grey smog that had collected inside my heart was beginning to dispel.

There were two key words: “ Second opinion” and “ Wrong diagnosis” these words created hope inside my crumpling heart.

I paid for that book though my nose, but it was worth it. I came home, read all the symptoms; few matched mine, but most were common to a simple swelling due to some toxins in the body, and could not necessarily be a life threatening cancerous tumor.

I went for second opinion to another doctor, and after probing the gland with his expert fingers, the (Good) doctor laughingly asked me to sleep over it; literally. He even gave me a mild tranquilizer along with the antibiotics, to help me get over my paranoia. Within the next three days, there was no trace of the swelling.

Now whenever I am faced with a problem, I think about my experience of few years ago, and force my self to believe that very soon I will be laughing over this problem too. It is true that not all problems may require the same kind of approach; one has to use a different tool or technology, as we can’t use hammer where a metal detector is required. However, most of my solutions skirt around this approach. I realize that in order to find solutions one has to understand the problems, just as one has to do a brief exploration of the building first, to find the room.

But one thing is common to all the problems. When we distance ourselves a little from the pressing issue, the mind becomes calmer, sharper and more focused, and thus becomes better equipped to handle the tough situations and help us find solution to a specific problem.

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