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Some Holiday Self-Help: Are You Getting Enough Sleep?

Why introverts may need more sleep than extroverts during this joyous season.

By Mark J Sebastian - Jackie Martinez. Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Mark J Sebastian - Jackie Martinez. Wikimedia Commons

Now that the holiday season is here, it's important to try to keep things in balance psychologically. Sure, this festive time of year is an extrovert's dream: constant socializing, parties, travel, etc. But even extroverts can get too much of a good thing. This is why, even for them, some quiet time, self-reflection, prayer, or meditation can be helpful. And while introverts struggle with the season, it forcibly offers the (distasteful) opportunity to come out of their self-imposed shell and practice employing his or her "inferior function," namely extroversion.

Whatever type you happen to tend toward (no one is 100 percent introverted or extroverted), the secret to surviving the holiday season intact, and maybe even coming out more whole than before, is balance. And the most basic balancing act takes place between the polar opposites of extroversion and introversion, action and inaction, doing and being, waking and sleeping.

Psychiatrist C.G. Jung defined introversion as a basic way of being in the world which is the polar opposite to extroversion. (See my prior post.) Introversion involves the inward movement of libidinal or life energy and a valuation, preference for and focus on interior over exterior reality.

Sleep is the primal form of introversion, a state in which we temporarily but regularly withdraw almost totally from the outer world and journey to the fathomless depths of the inner world. Indeed, temporary paralysis during REM sleep pretty much precludes us from physically interacting significantly with the external environment. Living as we do in such an extroverted society, most of us suffer from a chronic insufficiency of sleep. Some studies indicate that people today are sleeping less than they did several decades ago and that sleep deprivation is a possible risk factor for serious physical conditions including heart disease, atherosclerosis, obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, and suppression of the immune system. In addition, sleep deprivation and resulting sleepiness play a part in traffic accidents and other dangerous mishaps involving human error.

Moreover, a lack of sleep can lead to a transitory mental state known by the French term abaissement du niveau mental: a temporary reduction of consciousness in which ego defenses are weakened, rendering us more susceptible to the unconscious and our personal complexes. Sleep deprivation induces this state, sometimes causing or exacerbating symptoms such as anxiety, depression, mania, paranoia, irritability, anger, and rage. Hence the value, even for hardcore extroverts, of getting enough of the compensatory, restorative introversion sleep provides, especially during times of intense stress. While each person differs in the amount of sleep needed for replenishment, eight hours being about average, it is crucial to get sufficient amounts and adequate quality of sleep, and to do so on a regular schedule.

Sleep heals the body, clears the mind, and restores the soul. Recent studies indicate that getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep nightly leads to losing excess pounds. In patients suffering from insomnia or hypersomnia (sometimes secondary symptoms of anxiety and depression), regulating sleep pharmacologically or otherwise can be crucial to successful psychotherapy.

But the experience of abaissement du niveau mental is a double-edged sword: We may be more susceptible to our unconscious complexes and have a lowered threshold for frustration, but, at the same time, we are more closely connected with the unconscious and its potentially positive and rejuvenating energies. Dreams demonstrate this more open connection with the unconscious during sleep. And there is much to learn from our dreams—if we are willing to listen to what they might be trying to tell us. Of course, that would require taking what occurs during the almost totally introverted process of sleeping seriously. And this is something strongly extroverted types have trouble doing.

Indeed, I suspect that if we were to diagnose the psychological type of scientists, psychologists, and sleep researchers who insist that dreams are meaningless phenomena (nothing more than random neurological activity in the brain or mere reactions to physiological stimuli such as indigestion, heat or cold), we might well discover that these are largely extroverted types. (Here is a possible dissertation topic for psychology graduate students to consider.) Introverted types, on the other hand, would be much more likely to attribute meaning and importance to their dreams, since they comprise part of their inner life.

Whether dreams always have meaning, as both Freud and Jung believed, is debatable. I find it just as possible that dreams sometimes (even usually) are psychologically meaningful, but at times, possibly not. In existential psychotherapy, this technical approach to dreams, putting aside any presuppositions or preconceptions as to what, if anything, they might mean, is referred to as phenomenology. In any case, Jung's powerful premise in his book, Psychological Types, is that we tend to see and interpret the world and our experiences, both outward and inward, through the special lens of our own particular psychological typology.

Another potential and typically unconscious resistance to sleep and the dreams that visit us during sleep is twofold: fear of the unconscious or the unknown, and fear of death. When we are fearful of the unconscious and what it might contain, sleep will be avoided as much as possible. Sleep is like entering a foreign land fraught with danger and discovery. Not everyone wants such unpredictable nightly adventures. Sleep also resembles death. Each night, we die to the outer world and each morning we are miraculously reborn. It requires a voluntary relinquishing of control, a willing letting go of outer reality, and a complete surrender to unconsciousness. Individuals with excessive death anxiety dread sleep for this very reason. Like the famous "Energizer Bunny," they just try to keep going and going until sleep can no longer be avoided. But their unconscious death anxiety constantly pursues them like some demon, often manifesting during sleep in the form of frightening nightmares. What we run from during daylight always returns to haunt us in the shadowy darkness of night.

From the extroverted perspective, sleep and dreaming seem a total and utter waste of time. Why spend eight hours each day sleeping, wonders the extrovert, when you could be doing chores, seeing people, making money, traveling, accomplishing goals, etc.? Given the choice, most extroverts probably would never sleep if that were humanly possible. But from the introverted point of view, sleep is a welcome and requisite retreat from the outer world. Sleep is a specified time for just being rather than doing. While there are no scientific studies on this subject of which I'm aware, I would venture to speculate that introverted types both like and need more sleep than extroverted types. (For any psychology graduate students or sleep researchers out there reading this, my hypothesis might make for an interesting thesis or dissertation.)

So, if a little extra sleep helps you to feel refreshed and reinvigorated, that may mean you tend more naturally toward introversion. Or you could just be a very tuckered out extrovert whose psyche and body are trying to tell you something terribly important: Slow down, spend some time with yourself, draw the curtains to close out the world for a while, and surrender to the replenishing introversion of sleep.

Whatever your psychological typology, sleep (when not used excessively to escape problems and avoid life) can be healing. In psychotherapy for the extrovert, learning to value sleep and the helpful power of dreams is a way of counterbalancing or compensating his or her one-sided extroverted development. An extra hour of sleep, a nap, or maybe some meditation (a form of conscious introversion) might be nourishing and therapeutic. (See my prior post.)

For the introvert, sleep and dreaming is a welcome way of connecting to his or her true nature and receiving the requisite energy, power, and wisdom to be in the outer world more meaningfully, authentically, and successfully. As you enjoy your holidays this year, don't forget to try to stay centered, balancing extroverted behavior with a little introverted time, and introverted time with a little extroverted behavior. You might enjoy the season even more!

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