Odds are good that you do not sleep perfectly every night.
In fact, the American Psychological Association recently found that “60 percent of adults report having sleep problems a few nights a week or more.”
That may not sound like a big deal and we may often tell ourselves that we don’t really need 8 hours of sleep a night, but a mounting pile of evidence suggests that it might be time to start taking our sleep habits seriously.
A 2017 study detailed the short-term effects of sleep disruption: increased stress and psychological issues — “from emotional distress and mood disorders to cognitive, memory, and performance deficits.” The study highlights that long-term consequences are even more severe, including higher cholesterol, higher body mass, higher blood pressure, and an increased risk of hypertension. The study reported that ”disruption of circadian rhythm and sleep deprivation have been shown to accelerate tumor formation and may increase the risk of cancer.”
What stops us from getting a good night of sleep?
In addition to genetic and environmental variables, psychological factors play a large role both in how quickly we can fall asleep and in how many disruptions we experience while we sleep. Chronic low-level stress is often one of the most significant factors.
Stress can cause the body to release hormones that raise our heart rate — it’s one way our nervous system prepares us to respond to a threat by being ready to take immediate action. This is a healthy response for short and intense, life-or-death situations. But chronic stress puts our body in this heightened state for long periods of time, which has clear impacts on both physical and mental health.
One effect of chronic stress is that it can cause a disruptive cycle of sleep disruption and deprivation. Being constantly “on alert” interrupts our ability to fall asleep and brings on nervous or anxious thoughts at night when our mind should be resting. From there, it turns into a vicious cycle as insufficient sleep only exacerbates these effects and adds more stress.
Have you ever laid down in bed at night only to be hit with a wave of anxiety as you remember all of the items on your to-do list that you didn’t finish?
Before you know it, you’ve been laying in bed for an hour or two in a state of near-panic. Then the next day, you’ve slept less, you’re less productive, and you end up with even more unfinished tasks on your mind. By the time you lay back down in bed, things have actually gotten worse and the whole process repeats.
That’s what stress does to the mind.
How prayer alleviates stress
Prayer supports overall wellbeing in many ways, including helping us to become more resilient to stress.
In Dr. Roberta Lee’s recent book, the SuperStress Solution, she notes that people who are religious or spiritual are “better able to cope with stress, they heal faster from illness, and they experience increased benefits to their health and well-being.”
She goes on to describe how the two connect: “On an intellectual level, spirituality connects you to the world, which in turn enables you to stop trying to control things all by yourself. When you feel part of a greater whole, it’s easy to understand that you aren’t responsible for everything that happens in life.”
In other words, when we pray, we realize that we are not alone, that God is with us, and that He is there for us as we face the trials and tribulations of life. This realization dissolves the lie that we often slip into when we allow ourselves to believe that we are the center of our universe.
When we pray, we let go of the pride of our ego and humbly accept that “for human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
And it really does work.
In a 2018 study, the National Sleep Foundation concluded that “more religious adults in particular tend to exhibit healthier sleep outcomes than their less religious counterparts.”
But is it really okay to fall asleep while praying?
In fact, Pope Francis actually fell asleep during a Mass on his first trip to the U.S. in 2015. When asked about the incident by a reporter, he admitted to sometimes falling asleep in prayer and reminded us that we are all children in the arms of our heavenly Father: “This is one of the many ways in which the name of God becomes sanctified, feeling like a child in His arms. I am before God like a child in the arms of his father.”
Alessandro is one of the co-founders of Hallow, a Catholic prayer and meditation app that helps you develop and deepen your relationship with God through audio-guided contemplative prayer sessions. Hallow has an entire Sleep section in the app to help users find peace in prayer at the end of the day. The app is free to download and has permanently free content, as well as an option to upgrade to a premium subscription with additional content and features. You can start a free trial of Hallow Plus, the premium subscription here.