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Lost “Control” of My Thoughts

I was recently watching a docudrama called “Control” that chronicled the rise of the punk/new wave group Joy Division and troubled front man Ian Curtis. I heard that the movie was great, especially the nuanced, brooding performance of Sam Riley as Ian Curtis. I read one reviewer who wrote that Sam Riley didn’t play the part of Ian Curtis – he “channeled” him.

It was a dark movie, shot in black & white that depicted Ian Curtis’ battle with depression, poorly controlled epilepsy, and being emotionally destroyed from being caught in a love triangle and the mounting pressures of success. He lacked the resources and support to extricate himself from a spiraling melancholy and ultimately committed suicide at the age of 23, on the brink of super stardom, by hanging himself.
I’m NOT, I repeat NOT, recommending this movie to uplift spirits. It’s a powerful film to be sure, especially if you are a fan of that era of music or Joy Division/New Order in particular.

I mention this film because it caused me to experience much sadness over the course of the few days that I saw it. I wasn’t able to view it in one sitting because both of my boys were battling minor illnesses and were not sleeping well. This caused me and my wife to suffer some sleep deprivation over the course of the days that I was trying to watch the movie.

A curious thing began happening that really took the wind out of my sails. Between viewings, my mind kept gravitating to the depressing story and images. In fact, my mind kept “looping” dark images in an obsessive fashion. I could not dislodge them from my brain. Not only was it annoying, it was really bringing me down emotionally.

The night after I finally finished the DVD, I was able to get a full night’s rest. It was only then that I was able to get movie out of my brain. My mood improved considerably, and I was able to enjoy life much more than I had been on the previous days.

As I reflect on this experience, it seems that, due to the sleep deprivation, I was unable to regulate my thoughts and the corresponding emotions well in such a state. Thus, the movie clips, and the depressing reality they depicted, kept replaying in my mind unbidden. My experience is consistent with research showing that sleep deprivation reduces the ability of the prefrontal cortex (the seat of our higher order thinking, planning, and goal-directed behavior) to regulate our emotions and unconscious thinking. When sleep deprived, it’s as if our prefrontal cortex is taking a nap, leaving those other cognitive processes poorly regulated.

Although I have experienced negative emotions as the result of sleep deprivation before, I had not been aware of my own obsessive thinking resulting from lack of sleep. As we know from the cognitive-behavioral therapy model, it is our thoughts that generally underlie our emotions. So, when we cannot control our thoughts, then we will not be able to control our emotions well. It’s interesting that the movie was entitled “Control,” which was one of Joy Division’s songs as well.

If you desire better control over your thoughts and emotions, do not overlook the importance of sleep. Though it does not hold all the answers, it’s often best to start with some of the simplest solutions first before trying to find more complicated and nebulous answers.

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