Emma Beddington – The Guardian
What with all the tips on sleep hygiene and health scares about not getting enough shut-eye, is it any wonder we can’t nod off?
Sleep has become a ‘wellness’ goal. Photograph: Viacheslav Peretiatko/Getty Images/iStockphoto
I can’t sleep at the moment. It’s no big deal. It happens to everyone – and if it doesn’t, I don’t want to know. An article entitled Self-Confessed Great Sleepers Share Their Bedtime Routines recently hit my inbox and was deleted faster than my husband falls asleep – that is, instantly. Can’t his sort just enjoy their eight hours without regaling the rest of us with how they “just lie down” and “close their eyes”? Wow, thanks – I’ll try that next time.
Discussions of sleep and sleeplessness are everywhere I look and I swear they make my insomnia worse. Shuffling, sleep-deprived, across London last week, feeling flayed and vulnerable like an earthworm dropped on a dual carriageway, I picked up a free magazine only to find it was entirely sleep-themed. Headlines such as Get Ready to Have the Best Night’s Sleep of Your Life, a £550 “sleep robot” and recipes for “moon milks” (no, me neither) caught my eye before I shoved it, horrified, into my bag. For the rest of the day it throbbed with the hollow promise of new sleep dawns until I binned it, unread.
I did succumb to reading an extract from the novelist Samantha Harvey’s fascinating new insomnia memoir, but with a growing conviction I shouldn’t have. Her forensically precise evocations of fruitlessly chasing sleep now come back to me as I do exactly that at 3am.
Why? Because insomnia is a mind game and the most important thing is not to let it know you care; but the profusion of hints, tips and thoughtful dissections of the sleepless experience betrays how much we do care.
Yes, sleep is important. Last year a leaked government green paper stated that less than seven hours was associated with “increased risk of obesity, strokes, heart attacks, depression and anxiety”. Researchers who analysed 25 years’ worth of sleep studies described the link between insufficient sleep and premature death as “unequivocal”, which is helpful to remember at 4am when your face itches, your legs are simultaneously leaden and restless and that embarrassing incident in 2010 involving an acquaintance’s toaster plays on repeat in your whirring mind.
The problem is that sleep has become a “wellness” goal – another milestone in our quest for self-optimisation. It is ripe for data harvesting and analysis: sleep apps and wristbands monitor our cycles and help us identify patterns. It is also the ideal target for hacks and five-point plans. Have you tried the “military method”? It was everywhere last year: basically, you relax your face and body, spend 10 seconds imagining yourself in a “black-velvet hammock”, and repeat “Don’t think” in your head. This supposedly sends you to sleep within two minutes. I have spent many, many multiples of two minutes in that velvet hammock. I know its every fold intimately.
There are sleep retreats for the well-heeled and desperate that promise to reset your dodgy circadian rhythms. You can take a “yogic sleep” course in Bhutan, undertake a guru-guided “sleep journey” in the Maldives or sign up for hi-tech sleep diagnostics in Switzerland.
Then there is all the stuff: white-noise machines, alpaca duvets, pillow sprays … Weighted blankets are the new big thing. I used to think they were another infantilising sleep crutch; now I am convinced I need one. My bedside table is a shrine to sleep snake oil: there’s magnesium, stealth-imported melatonin, antihistamines and that sticky green Morpheus, Night Nurse. I would snort powdered dormouse bones if someone told me it guaranteed eight hours.
As Harvey’s memoir describes, insomniacs create elaborate rituals around whatever weird combination of elements happened to work once. But even the most rigorous or elaborate sleep hygiene regimes often fail and constantly searching for an external solution to the problem is genuinely counter-productive.
The more we fetishise sleep, the harder it is to relax and let it happen. I really need to convince myself that sleep doesn’t matter and shut up about it. You can see how well that is going by the fact that I am writing this.