By Evelyn Lewin
I often feel I haven’t slept much, even when I’ve been in bed for hours.
It is a reported experience psychology professor and sleep researcher Daniel Kay says he is familiar with.
He says previous studies have found patients with insomnia appear to be asleep – with eyes closed and their brain in a characteristic sleep pattern – but there’s a catch.
“You wake them up and guess what they are more likely to tell you? ‘I was awake.'”
Instead of either being “awake” or “asleep” (as though they’re the only two possibilities), he believes you can be consciously aware while your brain is in a sleep pattern.
His new research, published in the journal Sleep, may explain this. It showed that processes involved in reducing conscious awareness might be impaired in people with insomnia.
“It’s what I see every day,” says Dr David Cunnington, sleep physician and co-founder of Sleep Hub.
Dr Cunnington says people assume there’s a close relationship between how sleep feels and what is happening physiologically. So if people (like yours truly) are aware of noises or things around them, they think they’re sleeping lightly, or have poor quality sleep.
But, although we may think the only way to sleep “well” is to be completely unconscious, it is normal to have an awareness of sensory inputs, like hearing, during some stages of sleep.
As Dr Cunnington explains, the brain doesn’t actually sleep as a single unit, but is in fact made up of many different systems.
“It’s normal during sleep to have some parts of the brain in a sleep state, whilst other parts of the brain remain awake.”
That’s why mothers can respond to their child’s cry almost immediately, or why other noises during the night can be incorporated into our dreams.
Another reason insomniacs believe we sleep poorly is because we tend to underestimate just how much we snoozed.
In a case series, Dr Cunnington and colleagues compared how much a person felt they slept, versus objective measures of sleep. They found those with insomnia slept an average of two hours more each night than they estimated.
However, one of the hardest parts of dealing with insomnia isn’t the lack of sleep per se, but the bone-deep exhaustion you suffer the next day.
Thankfully, there are ways to mitigate that fatigue, says Dr Cunnington.
Attitude plays a pivotal part. He says breaking the cycle of negative thinking about sleep can help you tackle the following day feeling more on the ball.
Psychologist Sharon Draper agrees.
“We are what we think,” she says. “[So] if we tell ourselves we’re tired all day, we will most definitely feel tired all day.”
She advises replacing such thoughts with affirming, realistic ones about how you’re getting through the day, and how resting is just as vital as sleep.
Dr Cunnington says it is also important to challenge your beliefs about sleep: just because you feel you only had four hours of slumber, doesn’t mean you’re doomed to be tired the next day, so stop telling yourself that.
To get through the next day, Draper says it helps to keep to your usual routine, rather than succumbing to endless cups of coffee or daytime naps.
If your energy levels are drooping, she suggests taking micro-breaks to re-energise yourself without the use of sugar or caffeine. Get some fresh air, have a glass of water or go for a quick walk.
And, when it comes to bedtime, break the cycle of negative thinking about how you can’t fall asleep.
So, tonight, I will reassure myself that – even if I feel I can’t sleep – I may already be dozing, and that I’m probably getting more sleep than I assume.
And, if I’m like most insomniacs, chances are both those things will be true.