Searching for a good night’s sleep

Whippet puppy

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been having trouble sleeping lately.

I fall asleep easily enough, but I often wake in the middle of the night and work myself up into a state of anxiety about everything that’s been happening. I go down a rabbit hole of imagining what bad things might happen to family and to the world in general. This is weird because I’m normally a very positive person.

Ironically, my anxiety is often made worse by worrying about how much sleep I’m NOT getting. I wake up, look at the clock and do a quick calculation about the number of hours until I need to be getting out of bed and doing something productive and start freaking out because everyone knows we need seven or eight hours a night, right?

Well, wrong apparently.

Although it’s a commonly held belief that you need eight hours of sleep every night, there’s no real evidence to support this, and when you think about it, it makes little sense that we would all need the same amount of sleep, or that we need exactly the same amount of sleep every night.

It’s much more likely that we would need different amounts of sleep depending on the amount of exercise we’ve been doing, how old we are, how tired we are, and whether the kids have been keeping us up all night.

I listened to an interesting podcast the other night (when I wasn’t sleeping) on Insomnia Myths and Misconceptions, presented by psychologist Nick Wignall, in conversation with sleep physician Dr Daniel Erichsen, and they had some interesting things to say.

The idea that you need eight hours sleep for optimum health and productivity is based on a study where ‘good’ sleepers (people who say that they wake up well-rested) claimed that they usually sleep for eight hours a night. Scientific studies of these same people showed that they actually sleep for about seven hours a night, but of course it varies from person to person. So the eight hours a night rule is really just what people thought was a good number of hours, rather than being based on fact. But the focus of the podcast was on what causes insomnia and this is the bit that I found interesting. According to Nick and Daniel…

The biggest cause of insomnia is worrying about not sleeping.

It’s your anxiety about not sleeping that is causing most of the problems. It’s not the cup of coffee that you had, or the movie you watched on your iPad. It’s worrying that these are going to affect your sleep. As soon as you start fretting about being awake, you virtually guarantee that you’ll find it hard to get back to sleep.

You also need to stop worrying about waking up during the night. It’s perfectly normal to wake during the night, especially as you get older. In the olden days (prior to the industrial revolution) it was normal for people to have two sleeps every night. They would go to bed early and then wake up in the early hours of the morning and spend a couple of hours talking, playing games, even visiting friends, before heading back to bed for a few more hours of sleep. The invention of electric lights in the late 19th Century made it possible for people to stay up later and it became the norm for people to expect to sleep in one continuous stretch.

It was around this time that someone invented the term ‘insomnia’. This caused an explosion of potions and pills to help people get to sleep and stay asleep. It was inferred that there was something wrong if you woke up in the middle of the night, when previously this hadn’t been regarded as a problem.

In his book “Why can’t we sleep” Darian Leader says that sleep has become a commodity that’s worth billions of dollars. Not only do we have a myriad of medications, there’s the mattress industry, smart watches to track your sleep cycles, and a host of books on sleep science. It’s a big business that relies on people being anxious about their sleep.

So, where does this leave you if you are having trouble sleeping because you are worrying about your business going down the spout, or other genuine possibilities?

I’m not sure of the answer to this, but I try to distract myself by listening to funny podcasts (try Elis James and John Robins or No such thing as a fish) or by listening to music. It doesn’t block the swirling thoughts entirely, but it reduces my level of anxiety a few notches, and eventually I drop off again. I try really hard to convince myself that even though I’m not sleeping, that’s ok. Having children has taught me you can function reasonably well on a surprisingly small amount of sleep.

If this fails, I try to imagine what I’d do with a million dollars or other favourite scenarios. You may have your own version of this. It might be designing the house of your dreams, writing a book, or inventing something brilliant. Do whatever works, but don’t focus on what the time is or how long you’ve been awake.

Everyone is understandably stressed and anxious about what the next few months will bring, so rather than stress too much about things you can’t control, be kind to yourself and get some rest when you can.

Best wishes from me to you


15 thoughts on “Searching for a good night’s sleep

  1. I used to find it very difficult getting to sleep. I’d toss and turn but took ages to drop off. These days I have less of a problem. I like to read before snuggling down but often find I’m dropping off with the book in my hand. My problem now is that I tend to wake up in the middle of the night. I read an article a little while ago that in the past this was quite common and people used to get up, read, or do something else (you can guess) before nodding off again for what was referred to as their “second sleep”. So perhaps that’s what I’m experiencing – and some of your other commenters too by the looks of things, so perhaps it’s not so uncommon. Mind you age, which leads to the need to visit the lou, probably has something to do with it too!
    I also find it difficult to “lie in”; even at weekends I wake around 7. Sometimes that’s because my blood sugar has dropped and I need to take in some carbs (being diabetic). But I am very much a “morning person” – that’s when I do my best work
    Hope you’re keeping well.

    1. When I was researching this post I found quite a few references to bi-phasal sleep (two sleeps) being very normal so now I don’t worry about being awake in the night. I agree that it’s probably more common in older people but I used to have a toddler who would wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning and play quite happily for a couple of hours.
      I think reading until you feel sleepy is a wonderful way to go to sleep.
      We are all going well here. I’m very much enjoying being at home and getting lots of reading and writing done.

      1. It’s good to know I’m not the only one to have that type of sleep pattern!. And there’s even a term to describe it!
        Stay safe and well

    1. Have you ever listened to Adam Buxton’s podcast? It’s good for late night listening. Cheerful and interesting without being jarring.
      Yes that’s our little whippet Billy. He’s just a baby in that photo. He’s four now but still beautiful. We also have a new young whippet called Harley who’s naughty but loveable.

      1. I haven’t listened to that podcast — thanks for the recommendation! I also have two whippets! Nina is almost 7 and Trophy is 4 1/2. They can be quite naughty and cheeky, can’t they?! But we still love them!

  2. I found this interesting. As I get older I wake for the loo and if I cannot return to sleep I could be awake for several hours; the other day I was awake from 3am right through the next day without feeling tired. Quite strange. Also I read only today that you do your best work starting at ten am. Sorry but I am a morning person so if I cant sleep I am up and doing at a very early hour, I find my creative side really blasts off and I am in the zone for hours before breakfast calls. So I dont fight the sleeplessness, instead I write, read and work. It seems to work for me. I do admit to taking afternoon naps, but they rarely last longer than 20 minutes, enough to recharge the brain moreso than the body.

    1. I’m not sure where that 10 o’clock rule came from but it sounds a bit suss to me as well. Everyone is different and has their own rhythms.
      I know many writers feel the same as you. They do their best work before breakfast!
      Apparently an afternoon nap of around 20 minutes is really good for you.

    2. you are right Virginia, those shorter naps help so much more than the prolonged sleep during the day…..i find that i have more energy with the smaller naps than after the longer ones which tend to make me take longer to stabilise and think straight

  3. Having slept in two batches last night – 11.30-2.30 and 4.30-8.30 – I had the opportunity to reflect on this post. One of the issues I realise, is disturbing your partner by getting up to read or watch TV in the middle of the night. Even quietly getting out of bed is enough to wake a co-sleeper and then you have 2 restless people! Also, it is getting a bit cooler now and being up without dressing gown and slippers or heating makes it less pleasant. I’ll need a nap by mid afternoon but then I do that whether I have had a restless night or not!

    1. Yes the cooler nights do make it much less likely that you would want to get up and read in another room. I have a couple of suggestions…
      If you have a spare bed and you can bring yourself to ‘waste’ the electricity, you can leave the electric blanket on low in the other bed and then just hop in and read your book.
      Alternatively, you can download a podcast on your phone or tablet, plug your headphones in, press play and then pause. In other words, cue up the podcast so that you can just press the play button on your earbuds and you don’t have to faff around in the middle of the night. Make sure you turn it down low so that you don’t give yourself a fright.
      I know this might sound weird, but sometimes I think that having something ready to go makes me sleep better as I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to do if I can’t sleep. And as I said, it’s the worrying that’s the killer.

      1. I’m getting used to being disturbed, either by my partner or by needing to get up in the night, or because my back or hip is hurting. Getting a good night’s sleep is very difficult these days, but the worst thing is lying awake worrying about things you can’t change…

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