DIALast week I wrote about insomnia and ADHD, but my own bouts of insomnia tend to occur when my attention is too focused on what I’m doing. Take, for instance, the last two months. Trying to meet a slew of deadlines, I slaved away on work projects while also making lavish preparations for the holidays. At night I was often too keyed up to sleep.

The short nights that resulted put a damper on my days. Every morning I woke up to that fatigued-but-racing feeling I get after insomniac nights. Every new challenge becomes a mountain to be scaled, and when I sit down to write (which I do most days) I have trouble finding words. A funk settles in and starts to feel permanent. Petty annoyances grow huge.

A Break from All That Work

But a trip to the Detroit Institute of Art chased away the gloom and the insomnia in one fell swoop. No single piece of artwork lifted me up and righted my sleep. It must have been the experience in toto.

A different city, a building whose every room and frame transported me into a different world. The abstract, colorful, off-kilter landscapes of John Marin. The play of light and shadow in the New York nightscapes of Martin Lewis. The photos of Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, one after another lifting me out of myself and into another time and place.

No less transporting were the people at the DIA. They exuded holiday spirit if I didn’t. Kresge Court was full of visitors chatting, sipping coffee, not anxious to be doing anything except relaxing and enjoying the day. The couple beside us silent but evidently taking pleasure in the scene, the man in suit, tie, and cufflinks and the woman in a shiny dress with a brooch on the collar. The family to our left speaking a foreign language. The little girl, on seeing the gigantic ice cream sundae her father set under her nose, diving into the whipped cream. A performer singing carols to piano accompaniment while others clapped and sang along.

Regrets? Not So Many

I don’t fault myself for putting on blinders when the going gets tough. My ability to focus enables me to move ahead with projects and get things done. But sustained too long, single-mindedness of purpose can become a prison. My body communicates this in so many ways, and insomnia, Old Faithful, is one.

The Rx is to stage a breakout. Flee the deadlines and the must-do’s and train my attention wholly on people and things outside myself. Even if only for a day, this can help me regain perspective and balance.

Anyway, a trip to the DIA sure beats weeks of talk therapy!

Do you have insomnia at times when you’re very focused on what you’re doing? What have you found that breaks the cycle?

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.


  1. This is a lovely essay, Lois. I admire your writing. So flowing. It shows no effects of your insomnia. The graphic, too, is very good: uplifting and at the same time calming. The point you make is as valuable for people who have no trouble sleeping as it is for insomniacs.



  2. Great post, Lois. There’s an old saying that a change is as good as a rest.



  3. Glad you liked the post, Marlene and Sheila, and thanks so much for taking time to comment. I’m sure the point is valid for almost anyone who’s goal-oriented and easily gets caught up in work. Sometimes change can even be better than rest.



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