Choosing the path of virtue

River slowing around the rocks

In the last couple of years, I started to have some issues related to sleep. Initially, there were occasional sleepless nights. Other times, it was waking up in the middle of the night, or in the early hours of morning and then not being able to go back to sleep again.

Slowly, I became aware that this pattern was occurring more frequently. As the realization dawned, so increased my level of anxiousness, before going to bed, I would start to think about sleep and make conscious efforts to fall asleep.

That was when l lost the automaticity associated with sleep that most of us have.

Over months, occasional sleepless nights turned into severe insomnia. There would be 3–4 nights at the end when I was not able to sleep. The positive feedback loop between thinking about sleep and ability to sleep also started to touch on different aspects of life.

Somewhere along my journey to find the key to resolve my insomnia, I learned about the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a technique for intervening into negative responses that can result from various triggers — a thought of not being able to sleep tonight (the trigger) cascading into fears about the quality of day tomorrow (the negative consequence).

Upon further reading, I also became aware of the specific CBT approach for Insomnia (CBT-I).

CBT-I utilizes various methods aiming to enhance positive association between bed and sleep. The practice of CBT-I includes (i) developing sleep routines that create a positive association between bed and sleep and (ii) encouraging positive interventions between triggers (associated with the possibility of a sleepless night) and catastrophizing its negative consequences on a host of other things.

CBT-I is proposed as the first line of defense against insomnia and its practice is documented to alleviate two-thirds to three-fourth cases of insomnia. Following the CBT-I practices in their fullness, however, could be one of hardest things we might have to do in our life.

The requirement to get out of the bed when unable to sleep, particularly on cold wintery nights, is no piece of cake.

I learned about CBT-I more than a year ago, and since then, off and on I have tried to practice CBT-I but kept failing again and again. This is even though I keep reminding myself that a few months of (possibly grueling) CBT-I routine, which has a potential for getting me out of insomnia, would be a far better return on investment to aim for.

But over and over, I kept failing and falling on resolve again.

I am not a person with a weak will by any chance, but in the case of following CBT-I, so far, I fell victim to a choice guided by our natural preference for selecting the path of least resistance.

In a broad sense, given multiple choices that differ in the amount of effort required, we have a natural tendency to select the option that necessitates least amount of effort on our part.

Various phenomena occurring in nature and in human behavior provide examples for the tendency to follow the path of least resistance.

When encountering an obstacle, for example, a large rock, the river opts to go around it to continue its journey to its destination. To go the other side of a succession of hills, most hikers may select a path along the trough rather than climbing over the hill and then descending.

As for many of our behavioral aspects, it is likely that natural selection guided our preference for choosing the path of least resistance. Why spend precious energy reserves for selecting between the harder of the two options? Save it for when times get tougher.

But now, my evolved consciousness also tricks me into selecting the path of least resistance. To make matters worse, enveloped in the darkness of the night, I tell stories and convince myself that just for one night it is okay not to follow the hard option of CBT-I. One night lying awake in bed turns into two nights, into a week, and before I know it, a month is behind me without any progress. And I failed yet again in giving CBT-I an honest try.

It is remarkably easy not to stay disciplined and to psychologically delude ourselves into opting for easier options.

What also helps is our tendency to go for pleasures of immediate gratification vs opting for activities that offer benefits over a longer time horizon (i.e., delayed gratification), a tendency also referred to as the present bias.

I know that having consciousness is a blessing; however, if not used virtuously, it could be an impediment. Maybe one day after I keep trying, I will be wiser and live a more virtuous life.

Colin A. Espie: Overcoming Insomnia and Sleep Problems: A self-help guide using cognitive behavioural techniques

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store