When the monsters strike... 5 ways to manage memories or thoughts that go bump in the night
Social media has its good and bad sides but last week I had one of the brilliant moments when I came across a brilliant post from the rather amazing and very inspiring Dave from ‘An ordinary office.’ An ordinary office is a prayer community gathering around the Anglican tradition of saying ‘daily office’ prayers - using regular prayers to mark certain times of each day. 'An ordinary office’ publishes prayers for each day with a particular headspace for those who might be unable to connect with church gatherings or communities - through illness or circumstances. They also - vitally and amazingly - include on the site an ‘amen’ button you can press to register your prayer and remind you you are not alone - you are part of a wider community of praying people reaching out to God in perhaps dark or difficult times. I love it - do check it out - and thank you to Dave and people like him quietly and beautifully bringing God to the people and places who need it so much but are often overlooked and can feel forgotten and abandoned.
The post that caught my eye was a beautiful prayer written for the night hours - those darkest moments when sleep won’t come and your mind is suddenly alive with thoughts and things you’ve held at bay all day but which seem to strike just when you are desperately trying to switch off and find rest. Monsters often catch us in those quiet moments, and the night when we are exhausted and alone is the worst time to be ambushed. You can read the full prayer at the end of this article (reprinted with permission).
So why does the bogeyman so often get us in the early hours? Why can thoughts, memories - or other things - catch us, even wake us in the middle of the night? I’m often to be caught agitatedly adding things to my supermarket order in the dark, or putting reminders on my next day's calendar at 3am for things I’ve suddenly remembered I still need to do.
Your mind is a brilliant thing, but it does have limits. When life gets super busy your internal processor can - as you may feel all too keenly - be overwhelmed. And your mind is good at clocking things you need to give headspace to - but not always so good at getting your attention when the day is busy and you are constantly reacting to the next demand. Just keeping your head above water can take all your capacity in those moments.
And of course, sometimes the things your mind wants you to notice are the very things you don’t want to think about. Painful emotions, traumatic memories, difficulties or dilemmas you don’t have a solution for - all day you might be actively suppressing them. But your mind knows they need to be thought about, dealt with, processed ...
And so, finally, at the end of the day, you collapse into bed seeking relief, rest and restoration... but your mind is FINALLY able to get a word in edgeways! And so just as you want peace your brain brings other things to the front of your mind.
It’s a natural process - but that doesn’t make it any less annoying if you are battling insomnia, or frightening if you’re experiencing bad dreams or flashbacks. So how do you deal with it?
1. Find daytime spaces to pause and process.
This is often the key whether it’s emotional trauma or just your weekly to-do list that is keeping you awake. The more we can find waking time and give ourself space to process BEFORE we try to sleep the less likely our brain will be to need to disturb us at night. Studies show simple tasks like writing down your next day's to-do list before going up to bed can significantly help those struggling with insomnia. Keep a pad by your bed so that if you are woken by a thought or remember something crucial you can jot it down - once out of your mind your working memory will release it - stopping the thoughts continuing round and round your mind.
2. Remove reminders of the day
In these times of modern technology were only just starting to recognise how much our 24/7 world can affect our minds. Little things like the presence of your phone next to you on the bedside table are subtle but powerful reminders of the waking world and can be surprisingly strong in the way they disrupt your ability to switch off. Try leaving your phone downstairs at night - if you use it for other things then find alternatives - buy an alarm clock, get a journal for night time thoughts or a jotter for things you need to remember. Don’t use your bedroom for things that require your brain to be switched on - especially work or anything stressful. The more you can make it a special sleep and rest zone the more your mind will associate it with that and the better it will be at leaving the days worries downstairs.
Ultimately what stops your mind being able to grab our attention in the day is lack of time and headspace. How much empty space do you get in the average day? Any? Do you tend to fill it immediately; instinctively with your phone or another thing? If you do not make space for your mind in the day, it will grab it at night, when you want to switch off. So look at your rhymes and think - where can I fit in some headspace? Then use that headspace well to offload - whether it is journaling your thoughts, feelings or emotions, prayer or something more practical like working through your to-do list.
4. Process pain
One particular kind of offloading many of us actively avoid is allowing our mind to move to the things we least want to feel. This is particularly a challenge for anyone with difficult, painful or traumatic memories or experiences they need to deal with - but we can all become caught in the cycle of avoiding thinking about things all day only to become trapped in them at night. The more difficult the issue, the more a challenge it is to find positive ways of processing it in our daytime space - but finding a way can break the cycle of nighttime haunting. If you feel you can, find a trusted friend to share with and talk/pray it through. If you know you need more then look into therapeutic options - safe and boundaried spaces to open up things which are too difficult to face alone.
5. Manage your mind
One of the most challenging things about those times when your head gets too full is managing the barrage of thoughts, ideas, tasks reminders and worries racing through it. We can become so overwhelmed we lose touch with our minds, struggling to keep track and focus, finding it difficult to pay attention to any one thing and feeling at the mercy of our thoughts and anxieties rather like a ship on a choppy sea. In those moments even if we do make space to pause or process, we can feel so wired that it just isn't possible to calm our thoughts enough to grasp or manage them. Mindfulness is the practice of learning to hold your thoughts, feelings and emotions without judgement or emotion, accepting and cradling them so that you can allow your awareness to settle, and your mind to manage the things it needs to. It is about reconnecting with the present moment, stopping just for a moment and not racing ahead. For more about mindfulness check out other articles on this site.
When the monsters strike…
No matter how much we might want to avoid it, sometimes the horrible reality is that right now we are in a season where some of our most feared or avoided thoughts are most likely to haunt us in the midnight hours. What do we do then, when we are ambushed, and alone, and feel at our most vulnerable? Then we can reach out to a God who never leaves us, who can bring hope and light to our darkness and despair. We can pray and find comfort in that ritual and the companionship of God. But also we can draw comfort from remembering that we are not alone. That somewhere in the darkness others reach out into the same night, to the same God. That we are part of a bigger picture - and importantly a wider hope. That the four small walls we feel trapped by at that moment are not the limits of reality but that there is greater God out there who is in control.
Need prayer? Dave and the team also have a button you can press if you need prayer right now - whether you can share details or (often more important) when you feel that you cannot, but just need to know you are not alone. As they say ‘God is listening. And He knows who you are. We don’t need to.’
Here’s the full night time prayer from Dave and the team at An Ordinary Office that caught my eye - remember to check out their website as their prayers are regularly updated:
Lord the bogeyman is here again
Stealing away our rest
Haunting our dreams
Playing with our fears
In the wee small hours
When our monsters stalk the corridors of our minds
Wading through the backwaters of our day
And our pain, anxiety and worries run riot
When our medication is not working
When the only voice we hear
Is the echo of our own doubt
Laughing at our fragile faith
Shaking the foundations of our belief
Wake from your sleep at the back of the boat dear Jesus
And calm the waters, quell the storm that engulfs us
Bring your calm, your peace, your rest
When our feeble faith deserts us
And fear runs amuck
Lend us yours
We know that will be enough
As it has been so many times before
Let nothing cause us to fear
To send us running
Let no concern overwhelm us
Let all pain be dulled
All nerves be calm
Take us gently back to sleep
Watching over us till dawn’s light
As we click the AMEN button
Let us watch others do the same
And know we are not alone
Somewhere in the night
Another calls your name
(From: Disability and Jesus www.anordinaryoffice.org.uk
Shared with permission)