Helping an Anxious, Teenage Insomniac

February 10, 2017

Lucy Ann Moll

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Lucy Ann Moll

Who doesn’t have trouble falling asleep occasionally? What about feeling uneasy at night? Has this happened to you or to a counselee? Have you had a creepy sense someone was watching while you slept? Perhaps not. But you may recall that in your childhood you saw shadows on the wall that looked like monsters. Then you realized that it was created by clothes on the door hook, and you felt relief. Insomnia, uneasy creepy feelings, and imagination all may play into anxiety. The question is, how might a counselor help someone overcome anxiety that has dogged her for several years? Here’s how I was able to help “Maura” (not her real name).

Sick of Insomnia

A former counselee came to counseling complaining of insomnia night after night. Seventeen years old and a high school senior, Maura was sick and tired of insomnia. She reported great difficulty falling asleep at bedtime, and after falling asleep, she regularly woke up at 3 or 4 a.m. and could not go back to sleep. She had a clean bill of health from her medical doctor, but she lacked energy and felt exhausted much of the time. No surprise there, but she also had an uncomfortable sense that an unknown and imaginary man watched her from the darkened hallway or her room as she laid in her bed. She said she knew this man wasn’t real. (Interestingly, her father had died of a sudden heart attack about four years earlier.)

A Christian since childhood, Maura knew her anxiety was unbiblical. She could rattle off Philippians 4:6-7, Isaiah 41:10, and 2 Timothy 1:7 without missing a syllable. But her first counseling assignments didn’t go well. Already loaded with schoolwork, she choose Trigonometry and World History over looking up more verses on overcoming anxiety. So I resumed data gathering with her.

Quizzing Maura and her mom, I learned that unplugging the iPhone at night had helped a bit in her falling asleep more quickly. In Wayne Mack’s book Homework Manual for Biblical Living, Vol. 1, I found a plan for sleep. Armed with this information and Maura’s willingness, we wrote a sleep plan that included a critical biblical element.

Insomnia: An Appointment for Prayer

Maura had catastrophic, ungodly thoughts that raced through her mind when she first went to bed and when she woke up in the middle of the night: “I’ll never fall asleep. Why can’t I just be normal? I feel on edge. How can I make myself fall asleep? This is going to be a bad day.”

Her new, detailed sleep plan included an earlier bedtime and no use of any screens at least one hour before going to bed. Thirty minutes before bedtime, she was to follow a routine of washing up, dressing in her pajamas, and reading a book. At bedtime, she was to meditate on Scripture, have prayers of praise and thanksgiving, and look forward to whenever God would wake her up so she could pray. The latter was a major attitude change!

What proved important was this instruction: When she awoke in very early morning, she would pray, “Thank you, God, for waking me up because now I can pray to you,” and then she would pray. Philippians 4:6 gives the command to pray with thanksgiving while anxious. Now Maura was doing just that.

The next session Maura reported significant improvement. She woke up her usual one or two times in the early morning and followed the homework assignment to thank God for waking her up to pray. She prayed, and while praying, she fell asleep. She sometimes sensed the “imaginary man” looking at her, and she reminded herself of the truth in Philippians 4:8.

Over the next two sessions, as she continued to replace her “I’m never going to fall asleep” thoughts with the truths that God was with her and protecting her, her insomnia nearly disappeared, and she seldom sensed the “imaginary man” (about once every two weeks or so versus every night).

What Led to Sweet Sleep

In less than six weeks, Maura reported no more insomnia and feeling less anxious overall. She continued the habits of having a structured nighttime routine, praying, and correcting her thoughts biblically. In addition, Maura smiled more. So did her mom.

Here are two of the reasons for Maura’s success:

First, she was eager to find a biblical solution, so her commitment was high from our first session.

Second, the switch to her new sleep routine helped her rethink her problem and look upon the times she woke in the middle of the night as God’s appointments for her to pray. This took the fear out of “oh, no, not another sleepless night.” Becoming more Christ-like in her thinking had a positive effect even in her sleeping.

Her mom said she learned from Maura’s homework and that her own sleep improved once she also began “[taking] captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5b).

Join the Conversation

Have you had opportunities to work with insomniacs? What was your counsel?