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