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?

12 Comments
  • Di Clark
    Posted at 11:52h, 24 October Reply

    This is an odd trick, but it works for me some of the time when I just cannot “repress or refocus those thoughts that are keeping (you) awake”. I’m a big fan of WAIT WAIT DON’T TELL ME on NPR but instead of listening to it live, I play the podcast on my mobile phone at low volume and – strange to say – even though it is laugh-out-loud funny, it seems to have a calming effect and I often fall asleep before the half hour show is over. I hope Peter, Bill and score-keeper emeritus Carl won’t be offended! I always replay the show until I have heard it all.

    • Janis Palma
      Posted at 21:08h, 26 October Reply

      Who would have thought? Thanks for sharing, Di. It may help one of our colleagues. You just never know.

  • Hal Sillers
    Posted at 11:59h, 24 October Reply

    Absolutley, Janis. Chamomile/Manzanilla tea is the key. On occasion, if I wake up at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. and cannot get back to sleep, I have a couple of cups of chamomile tea with some soda crackers and go back to bed. The personal empirical data on this method is quite convincing, although the cohort is way too small to make any general statements as to its true efficacy. In other words: Works for me.

    Regards,

    Hal

    • Janis Palma
      Posted at 21:10h, 26 October Reply

      Hal, we must be twin souls. Sometimes I sneak in those soda crackers with my tea, also!

  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 12:38h, 24 October Reply

    I used to tell my kids to thing of a nice adventure and crate a story around it in their minds and that would turn into their dreams. It worked when they were little. Nowadays, not even chamomile helps me. But I turn the TV on, very low volume, to a rerun and I fall fast a sleep before the 30m show is over.

    The set has a timer, so I can program it to turn itself off.

    • Janis Palma
      Posted at 21:15h, 26 October Reply

      Well, the key is to find what works. I should mention there were a few other suggestions on NAJIT’s Facebook page that were quite interesting, so I’d encourage everyone to check that post as well. Thanks for sharing, Gio!

  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 12:46h, 24 October Reply

    Thank should read “think”…

  • Cecilia mihaylo
    Posted at 22:52h, 26 October Reply

    I get up and do something i don’t like yo do like ironing clothes Or organizing drawers…it doesn’t help the insomnia, but at least I get some work done. It doesn’t happen very often anymore. I think my brain decidedes to go back to sleep rather than face a boring task. Interpreting is stressful, true, but it has so many pluses! I was diagnosed with MS about ten years ago. I am not taking any medication and I am doing remarkable well. My neurologist has the theory that it is my job what has kept me well. She thinks my brain has created new paths or connections to replace those “eaten” by MS because it is used to find new gone toons on daily bases… Again, that’s only her theory and pretty difficult to prove, but I’m willing to believe it.

  • Veronica
    Posted at 10:44h, 27 October Reply

    Hello, Janis!

    I do agree, a tea helps. Although, it has to be a fruity one for me!

  • AJ
    Posted at 15:45h, 29 October Reply

    Thank you, Janis. I find the following helpful for easier sleep: a long walk during daylight, yoga, meditation, and especially when I have a new and unfamiliar technical interpreting job the next day (which increases anxious thoughts): having done my necessary preparation “homework.” Mealwise, having a light and early dinner consisting of more carbohydrates than protein, especially with a few walnuts added, helps me fall asleep more easily. I use valerian tincture as a last resort in tougher instances.
    Hope you find these useful.

  • Beverly Treumann
    Posted at 15:45h, 29 October Reply

    I agree the posts here that mention: bore yourself. I memorized the U.S. Presidents. It took me awhile. I think about what I know about each one and the period they lived in. I usually fall asleep by Lincoln (#16).

  • Miguel Dominguez
    Posted at 10:04h, 30 October Reply

    Dear Colleague,
    your are not the only one.
    Within my findings I realized that there are two main issues that keep me awake. One is the activity of the brain that is still revving at 65 mph while I am already at home; I would add to this the anxiety factor from other unfinished features from within and from my surroundings.
    This is what works for me:
    I try my best at keeping a clean conscience relating to my everyday life, meaning: I hold no double features in my character/personality; I am clear and transparent.
    I owe nothing to no one. I write down my To Do list so I can clean the slot.
    Whatever came that I did not cause it does not bother me, I just work my way through. (of course I say my prayers, call my mom, eat my vegetables and do my home work-joke).
    On the other hand, as spooky as it may sound, I guarantee you it will work; I read the bible. I know this is something to be taken seriously- it is spiritual anyway. If you choose to read the bible with a humble heart and an open mind two things might happen. You will find something uplifting and encouraging that will bring you hope and assurance- hope always helps. On the other side of the spectrum there is someone who does not want you to read the bible (jokingly) and will play a violin next to you until you fall asleep.
    On the physical side, I cover the clock and I go to sleep pitch black, it helps.
    This is an extra. Once in a while I drink tea made from Valerian root; soothing and no side effects.

    Take two and call me in the morning,

    Sincerely,

    Miguel Dominguez

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