24 Oct Sleepless in… (fill in the blank)
I can be clicking on “Likes” at 2:30 a.m. sometimes, not because I am such a great fan of Facebook but because I cannot sleep and decide to catch up on comments and posts by friends. I can wake up three and four times during the night, and then not be able to fall back asleep unless I read or play Freecell (there, I said it!) Not long ago a colleague mentioned she could not sleep, either. And then another one. And another. So I wondered… how many interpreters suffer from the same sleeplessness, otherwise known as insomnia? Most people think insomnia means not being able to fall asleep, but it is also “waking up often during the night and having trouble going back to sleep”, waking up too early in the morning (definitely not my problem), and feeling tired upon waking.
A secondary insomnia can be related to medical condition, for example, whereas a primary insomnia is not directly associated to a health condition. Acute insomnia is short-term, and can last from one night to a few weeks, according to the WebMD page, whereas chronic insomnia lasts at least three nights a week for a month or longer. Both acute and chronic insomnia have one cause in common: STRESS.
We really don’t have any statistics on interpreters’ insomnia, but I’d be willing to bet a lot of us have sleep problems. For one, we know that interpreting is a highly stressful mental activity, so that would certainly qualify as a “cause” for insomnia. And if we cannot “turn it off” when we get home, that would be a contributing factor. There is some literature on the effect of the interpreting activity on the interpreter’s mental wellbeing, such as Emotional and Psychological Effects on Interpreters in Public Services by Carmen Valero-Garcés, Vicarious Trauma and the Professional Interpreter by Robert T. Muller, Ph.D., and UN Simultaneous Translators’ Headaches Real by Edith Lederer.
On the one hand, if an interpreter “takes her work home”, she will most likely have trouble sleeping because the situations for which we interpret are usually tragic and/or traumatic. But beyond the obvious “taking your work home”, I would suggest that interpreters have trouble sleeping because the brain just won’t stop. In Comprehension Processes in Simultaneous Interpreting, the authors María Teresa Bajo, Francisco Padilla and Presentación Padilla explain that “The interpreter must simultaneously concentrate on and understand a unit of meaning or chunk of discourse in a given language (L1) while translating and producing a previous unit of meaning or chunk of that discourse in a second language (L2). In order to implement this the interpreter must be able to maintain the new unit in his/her working memory, access the meaning of the words and phrases involved, connect the information received to previous information, and translate this unit into a new linguistic code while producing the translated version of a previous unit.”
The cycle is repeated by interpreters hundreds of times every day, so while we could think the brain would be so tired it would be easy to fall asleep, we can also consider the possibility of the brain being so stimulated that it finds it difficult to wind down and rest. If you get home and have a glass of wine with dinner, the alcohol could make things worse instead of helping. Things to avoid late in the day include caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, heavy meals, and exercise (exercise should be early in the day); in other words, anything that will stimulate your body and keep you from relaxing before going to sleep.
You should try to go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time every day; make your bedroom dark, quiet, and comfortable. Use sleeping masks if there is a light source that bothers you and earplugs if there is noise that keeps you from sleeping comfortably. Naps during the daytime are not recommended, and neither is using your bed for anything other than sleep or sex. A routine to help you relax before sleeping, like reading a book, listening to music, or taking a bath, is also recommended.
If what is keeping you awake is worrying about things you need to do, the experts suggest you either make a to-do list (for the next day) or purposely repress or refocus those thoughts that are keeping you awake.
Now, if you do fall asleep and wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep (which is my case), you should do something that is not overly stimulating, like reading, until you feel sleepy.
Those over the counter sleep aids make me jittery, so I never recommend them. Anything with a “PM” after the name, and even the natural remedies like Valerian Root or Melatonin, have the opposite effect on me. My true and tried friends are chamomile tea and something called Rescue Remedy.
So now I wonder, if you suffer (or have suffered) from insomnia, do you have a special “remedy” to share with us?