Sleep and other mysteries

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Sleep has always been problematic for me.

One of my earliest memories is of finding myself awake when I knew I shouldn’t be. I’m all too familiar with the feeling of being ready for sleep, but somehow not finding it. A frustration made worse by knowing everyone else around me was fast asleep.

Childhood sleep challenges became adult ones, and over time I accepted it. There is lots of advice out there for insomnia sufferers. But most of it boils down to the basics. Don’t attempt sleep in an overheated room having drunk seven coffees, whilst on Twitter and playing a video-game. If you’ve been trying to get to sleep more easily for 30 years, chances are you’ve worked that out.

I recently read that women are more likely to suffer from poor sleep and it only gets worse as you get older! Argh. Why aren’t we further advanced in solving our sleep problems? Luckily there are a few hacks I have learned.

Early signs

As a child I read to pass the time when I couldn’t sleep. I blamed my lack of sleep on anything and everything. If there was a chink of light appearing under the door, my parents had to block it. If any noise could be heard, that would mean total sleeplessness. The closer I got to pitch darkness and silence at night, the better. When I stayed at friends’ houses, they would often find a clock removed from the wall and hidden behind a cushion. I couldn’t stand the ticking.

But actually what was stopping me sleeping was in my head. I wasn’t able to quieten my thoughts and relax.

On an average night I had difficulty falling asleep and woke up a couple of times. If there was an important event like (god forbid) an exam the next day, I’d be awake most of the night. I’d end up in the insomniac’s vicious cycle. I kept thinking how important it was to get a good night’s sleep, willing it to happen even as I realised my alarm was going off in 5 minutes.

Seeking out conditions that made sleep more likely became a priority. It was obvious I’d have a better chance of sleep in my own bed. I’d have the freedom to put the light on and read until I became more tired. Or to get up to drink water or go to the bathroom.

Sleepovers and mornings

This all made me very anxious about staying away from home. I was conscious that I might disturb others and longed to be a ‘normal’ sleeper. Friends will know that I don’t much like sharing hotel rooms. The idea of bedding down in a huge communal dormitory freaks me out completely.  All this is due to sleep issues. I know from experience I won’t be able to zonk out and wake up refreshed.

We’ve all got to face our fears so I have done the dorm room thing once during a hiking holiday in the Alps. Many aspects of that trip were unsuited to my personality. Luckily there was Schnapps.

Having difficulty sleeping means you’re unlikely to be a morning person. ‘Waking up and getting up has never been easy’ as Elastica sang. I find my Lumie alarm clock helpful in easing the transition. It gradually lights the room to emulate natural daylight. This makes the process of waking up easier. That, and tea.

Getting help

During times of stress, insomnia ramps up for me. A long-term relationship break-up resulted in six months of barely sleeping. Sleep deprivation and depression are often linked. The thoughts you have during the early hours of the morning can mirror the darkness around you. Writing them down helps. The act of recording tells the brain that you don’t need to worry anymore, at least for a few hours. I discovered over-the-counter sleeping pills on a trip to the US. I was very careful only to take one after several nights of insufficient sleep. They sometimes helped (always read the label etc.) but are not a long-term solution.

I’m intrigued by reports of sleep clinics using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to treat insomnia. It’s difficult to get access to specialist treatment on the NHS. So I tried an app called Sleepio which is based on similar principles. I got fed up of the Prof character but it’s worth trying.

I’m pleased to report these days my sleep is much improved, which is not the result of any magic solution. I keep an eye on stress. I still have bad nights and the classic ‘Sunday night’ wakefulness. But it’s manageable.

‘Rest is as good as sleep’ is a mantra I often repeat. Not sure it’s true but acceptance that not sleeping isn’t the end of the world helps.




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