Lightening illuminates the USNS Comfort during Continuing Promise 2011 in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, Aug. 7, 2011. DoD Photo.

Welcome to the middle of the night.

It’s 1AM, and there’s a storm inside of you. There’s thunder in your heart, and lighting in your brain. Whatever happened, whenever it happened, really doesn’t matter: it’s the middle of a sleepless night and the storm is raging. It might be fear; for many veterans, it’s anger. That’s the emotional part, the thunder. The lightning is the thoughts, the rubber bullets bouncing around in your brain that are flashing and crackling.

The problem is, the storm is not beneficial. Not right now, anyway. What, really, are you going to accomplish in the middle of the night? If someone caused the storm, then guess what? They’re sleeping right now. That’s not meant to increase the intensity of the storm, although it might, but it’s the truth. Chances are, they didn’t cause the storm as much as your thoughts and rules inside your own head. Fear is the response to a threat, Anger is the response to a violation of something that’s important to us. THESE are the seeds of the storm, not the words that were said or the actions that were taken. If we allow others to control our internal weather, then sunny days…and sleep filled nights…will be few and far between.

If you find yourself staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night, disturbed by the raging storm inside of you, consider these thoughts:

Let The Storm Pass

Even the most destructive hurricane, the most devastating tornado, eventually runs out of energy. The skies clear, the weather subsides. Somehow, that doesn’t seem to happen to the storms inside of us, though…because we keep feeding the storm. Every time the energy of the storm starts to wane, we whip it back up again with a thought or an emotion. We’re up, we’re down, we toss and turn, and more lighting flashes: great, now I can’t @#%*!*# sleep. I have to work in the morning! Why is this crap still happening to me?  The more we let the lightning flash, the more the thunder is going to roll. One way to calm it…let the energy die down. This is where mindfulness comes in; if you start to notice more thoughts, the lighting flash ones, then learn how to bring about thoughts that calm yourself. Stop feeding the storm, and eventually it will go away.

Don’t Try to Control The Storm

One thing that I’ve noticed, the more I try to control something, the less actual control I have over it. From my soldiers to my kids, from driving to exercise, the more I try to impose my will on it, the less things happen the way I want. Trying to control the storm, forcing myself to sleep, only leads to more frustration, more thunder, more lightening. Instead, if I acknowledge the storm, stop trying to fight it, and come to the awareness that there’s nothing I can do about it, then there’s a chance the storm will die out on it’s own.

Another way that many veterans try to control the storm is to artificially suppress it. Not just with sleep meds, which may or may not be effective, but by other means. Alcohol, narcotics. Trying to control the storm by suppressing it by external means is not controlling the storm at all, but really pushing it below the surface. It’s not gone, you just deactivated the part of your brain that notices it. That kind of delay doesn’t solve anything, and could create more problems on the other side of artificial sleep.

Don’t Let The Storm Control You

We have power over our thoughts and our emotions. We may not think we do, but it’s a scientifically proven fact that we have the ability to consciously modify our thoughts and emotions. It takes work, of course, but the type of work that will lead to lasting improvement. If we let the storm control us, then we won’t get anything done in the morning, because we’ll be so tired that we can’t think straight. If we allow the crackling power of the lighting of our thoughts to continue to streak across our mind, then we’re just going to keep the storm going. Instead, going back to point one, let the storm die out on it’s own.

Don’t Keep the Storm Contained

I hear what you’re thinking: “easy for you to say, big guy. I bet you sleep like a baby.” Really? Guess what time it is when I write this. Well past 1AM, I can tell you that. My way of calming the storm? This right here. Getting it out of my head and into the world. Opening Pandora’s Box  and letting the crap out that’s keeping me awake. Letting the rubber bullets of my thoughts out (in a non-destructive way) so they don’t do any more damage to my sleep. Now, unless you have a really great battle buddy or a really understanding partner, you’re probably not going to get a good response when you wake them up in the middle of the night for a chat. There are, however, options for you to be able to talk, if you want. Search “24/7 hotline” in any search engine and you’ll get over a million results in over half a second. Not only that, I guarantee you’re probably not the only one up in the middle of the night…there are online chats, I even checked my social media and have at least three contacts online right now. Getting the storm out of your head and into the world can be a key factor in letting it calm down.

How do you calm the storms inside you? I’d love to hear how you do it. Maybe you do choose the medicinal route, and it works for you. I have no problem with that, whatever works, right? Just make sure that you’re not doing more harm than good. But maybe you have a way that calms you to help you sleep. A colleague of mine teaches Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia, another connection and I were talking earlier today about mindfulness meditation, and there are likely more ways to calm the middle of the night storm. I’d love to hear them; reach out in the comments below, share on social media, or contact me directly. The more we know, the better we are.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

Duane France

Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.