Can Shakespeare help you to sleep?

You may well have had the same experience as me of going to a warm theatre in the evening.  The play starts and you’re enjoying the acting.  You are making yourself more comfortable, resting your head on your hand with your elbow on the armrest. You feel yourself fading but try to keep awake as you want to enjoy the play but find you have a nap.  Or perhaps you have a glass of wine at the interval and wonder as you get to the end how you seem to have missed a bit of the play. 

You may also have had the experience at night of waking and starting to think.  You go over the day or think about what’s on tomorrow.  Some bits start to worry you and you focus more on them.  The thoughts go round and you find yourself feeling much more awake and alert and anxious.  You sense the time passing, you want to sleep but can’t get back off. The more you try to get off the more intrusive the worries become and you worry about not sleeping and how you will cope in the morning. 

Perhaps, especially  if you are a theatre lover you should try the Shakespeare Sonnet approach! It is also a good way of reassuring yourself that you are not developing dementia. 

One reason that you can’t get back to sleep is because you are activating your mind.  Your unconscious brain is always sending ideas up to the conscious part.  Many of these ideas you just ignore. Others you pick up, run with and develop.  It is emotion that determines the importance you give to ideas.  Ideas with a lot of emotion, especially anxiety you are much more likely to think about.  These ideas are also likely to be associated with other emotional ideas.  Worries connect with other worries and it is easy to get these out of perspective.  The next morning it is common to wonder how you got in such a stew about what is clearly a minor issue – or an issue that you can do nothing about. 

So how do you best cope with being awake at night and worrying?  You want to do something that is low on anxious emotion and very familiar so you do not have to think about it.   If you reduce the amount of emotion and the complexity of your thinking then you are going to be more restful and more likely to fall asleep again.  You cant make yourself sleep but you can make sleep more likely.

You could learn a Sonnet – 14 lines of poetry – Shakespeare has written some beautiful ones.  Sonnet 116 is his best known

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? 

The form of the poem helps you to learn it.  Each of the lines has 10 syllables.  It’s made up of 3 blocks of four lines.  Line 3 rhymes with line 1 and line 4 rhymes with line 2.  There is an extra pair of lines to finish it off.  The best way to learn it is keep reading it and saying it in your head or out loud.  Try to learn it all roughly and then get better at it.  Listen to it on your phone – you can find it online to download. Speak it along while you play it outloud.   It is quite a lot to learn and may take you a few days or even a few weeks if you don’t practise much.  If you can learn it you can be sure you don’t have dementia – new learning is one of the first things to go!  If you can’t learn it,  you probably still don’t have dementia but have not been really working at it. 

Even if you have only learnt a few lines you can then start to use it at night, but it works best if you know the whole poem. You should not be trying to learn it at night.  You need to get good at the Sonnet and then use it at night. 

You can use it to help you to get to sleep.  Recite  the sonnet in your head, not playing it out loud.  If you get lost either restart or try to keep going.  You will not be able to do it right straight away so just do as much as you can and only do it a couple of times all the way through.

You can also use it when you wake at night.  The key thing is to get yourself started on it.  You will find that you have been thinking for quite a few minutes before you recognise what you are doing.  RECOGNITION that you are awake and thinking is the key.  Once you recognise click into reciting the sonnet in your head.

At first you might think a lot about the meaning – for example

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines

But often is his gold complexion dimmed

Which is really about its sometimes too hot and sunny but more often its cloudy!

Whereas the object of your love is much more consistent.

But after a while you will just be repeating familiar words that have a gentle calm emotion about them. 

It won’t always work and the usual reason will be that the worries intrude into the poem.  Try to put them aside and keep going.  Worries intruding is normal – it does not mean that you are not doing it right!

I hope you will actually enjoy the process, be reassured your memory is working and sleep better.  If you do learn another one – or find another poem.

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