We must not ridicule the man who doesn’t sleep. We are all very much alike. If any one of us happens to lie awake for a night or two, he is likely to get into a panic, and if the spell should last a week, he begins looking up steamship agents and talking of voyages to Southern seas. The fact is that most people are dreadfully afraid of insomnia. Knowing the effects of a few nights of enforced wakefulness, and having had a little experience with the fagged feeling after a restless night, they believe themselves only logical when they fall into a panic over the prospect of persistent insomnia.
=Two Kinds of Wakefulness.= As a matter of fact, insomnia is a phantom peril. There is not the slightest danger from lying awake nights, provided one is not kept awake by some irritating physical stimulus. All fear of insomnia is based on ignorance of the difference between enforced wakefulness and deliberate wakefulness, or insomnia. The man who has acquired the habit may stay awake almost indefinitely without appreciable harm, but the one who is kept awake for a week by a pain, by a chemical poison from infection, or by the necessity for staying up on his job, may easily be in a state of exhaustion. Even in cases of prolonged pain or over-exertion, the body tends to maintain its equilibrium by hastening its rate of repair and by falling asleep before the danger point is reached. It is almost impossible to impair permanently the tissue of the brain except in the presence of a chemical irritant. In case of infection we often have to give medicine to neutralize the effect of the poison or to resort to narcotics which make the brain cells less susceptible to irritation. But nervous insomnia is another story.
=Long-Lived Insomniacs.= A man of my acquaintance once said in all seriousness and with evident alarm: “I am following in the footsteps of my mother. She lived to be seventy years old and she had insomnia all her life.” If this man had been preaching a sermon on the harmlessness of chronic insomnia, he could not have chosen a better text, but he seemed just as much concerned about himself as if his mother had died from the effects of three months’ wakefulness. People can live healthy lives during twenty or thirty years of insomnia because chronic insomnia is nothing more or less than a habit, and “habit spells ease.” The brain cells are not irritated by either internal or external stimuli; there is no effort to keep awake; virtually no energy is expended,—except in restless tossing and worry. If the body is kept still and emotion eliminated, fatigue products are washed away and the reserves are filled in with perfect ease.