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Stoics, hormones and lists, oh my!

Are you one of the many who wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep? If so, this post is for you.

I think if I ever write a book it might be called The Daily Stoic’s Guide to Sleep.

Why Stoicism?

Studies show that that sleep deprivation can cause over a 60% amplification in emotional reactivity. Lack of sleep makes it tough to be stoic.

Rumination, also referred to as vigilance or arousal, is often the culprit in the middle of night wake periods. A large percentage of people who complain of disordered sleep have trouble “calming the chatter.”

Rumination is often a result of an overactive sympathetic nervous system. This may be related to negative emotional distress but also possibly related to positive emotions. You might feel so excited about _____ that you wake up and feel wired and unable to fall back to sleep.

We live in a high paced world, what I like to refer to as a “go” culture. Our ON switches don’t get a break and this leads to an overactive response from your sympathetic nervous system. You should be sleeping but your body is in fight or flight mode.

What exactly happens with an overactive fight or flight response?

When we experience thoughts of fear, stress, and urgency a part of our brain called the amygdala is activated.

Aurelius Aced his Amygdala

Actually a specific part of your amygdala called the locus coerulues is activated. This area is part of the brain known as the wake center. It is the main area for norepinephrine synthesis. So when you worry about things you are lose sleep, then you start to worry about losing sleep and a vicious cycle can ensue. This is not the kind of feedback loop you want.

In this situation higher levels of hormones that promote alertness, cortisol and epinephrine/noriepinephrine, are present. These are our stress hormones and while they are helpful in other behaviours, sleep isn’t when you want them around.

Cortisol: not always a bad guy but not your preferred bed partner

What can you do if this is you?


Meditation and mindfulness are effective ways to deal with the natural wake occurrences that can lead to these bouts of vigilance and insomnia. I’ve listed some book resources below and there are a plethora of apps that many folks find helpful.

Make your lists before bed

Another effective strategy for dealing with the thoughts that might keep up you up at night is to make a list before you go to sleep. This could be a to do list or it could be your thoughts on whatever is going on in your life. Studies show that doing this can decrease the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep. If you like doing the journal thing some good options are The Five Minute Journal or the Daily Stoic Journal.

“You have power over your mind and not outside events – realize this and you will find strength” Marcus Aurelius

“Realize this and you will find sleep” Aline Thompson

For more on meditation here are some suggestions:

For dipping into Stoicism:

Level Up those Zzzzs


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