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The Long Scroll Goodnight

One woman’s fight to find sleep

Writer and journalist Emma Beddington studies her own attempts at shut-eye and finds out we’re doing it all wrong

As someone who struggles with sleep herself, Emma Beddington is keen to listen to other people’s experiences and to try different approaches. “I’m sceptical about anything that claims to have a magic cure for insomnia,” she says. “What I like is to explore insomnia as a natural part of human experience: of course we need sleep, but sometimes there can be magic in the silent, empty, sleepless hours.” For Emma it was the acceptance of the experience of not sleeping that helped her to sleep. Here she begs the question, are we fundamentally getting sleep wrong?

It’s bedtime, and everything is ready for the perfect night. My pillows are plumped and spritzed with lavender and my thick, heavy curtains are drawn, casting the cool bedroom into inky darkness. On my bedside table, there’s a ‘sleep mist’ for my face and a ‘sleep concentrate’ full of soporific ingredients to rub on my pulse points. The light on my e-reader is turned down low, and the blankets are heavy. It’s the perfect sleep cocoon. The only problem is I’m not in it.

I’m downstairs, slumped on the sofa, the TV flickering in the background as I stare at my phone. The soothing chamomile tea I made to take to bed with me is cooling by my side as I check out my enemies’ photographs and read an email I know will stress me out. After that, I scroll through social media until my thumbs ache, getting far too deep into other people’s arguments. I’m tired – so tired. Too tired for common sense and too tired to face the prospect of all the ‘bedmin’ (my name for the tedious business of washing, brushing, flossing, and undressing). But I’m not too tired, apparently, to read an extremely long article about an unusual kind of pasta or to stare at pictures and try and work out which of two bears is fatter. When I do finally drag myself upstairs, I hold my toothbrush in one hand and my phone in the other. That video of a warthog attacking a tourist isn’t going to watch itself, is it?

You know – we all know – how that turns out. Another dismal night, unable to drop off, turning over my pillow to find a fresh bit, restlessly changing position, trying to avoid the temptation to look at the clock and discover just how little sleep I’ll be getting. I’m a sometime-insomniac, desperate for more REM: there is nothing I hate more than watching, wide awake and despairing, as the hours between 1 and 4am tick by, resenting my husband’s deep breathing as he sleeps peacefully beside me. But do I actually do what I need to do to improve my sleep? Not so much.

Does this happen to you? I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in sabotaging my own best efforts to sleep. The statistics back me up: 55% of people surveyed in recent IKEA research rate sleep as their most important wellbeing activity at home, but a 2019 Philips Global Sleep Survey study revealed 62% of adults don’t think they sleep well.

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“My late-night scrolling is a recognised phenomenon: ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’. It’s what you do when you should sleep but are also desperate to carve out time for yourself.”

Sleep is essential: without it we are miserable and stupid (I can confirm this personally – I spent 15 minutes looking for my keys this morning and found them in the fridge). A lack of it impacts our mood, memory, and ability to manage stress. It even affects our physical health. The pan- demic brought an unhelpful companion epidemic of ‘coronasomnia’ worldwide, with multiple studies reporting worsening sleep as, stuck at home, we battled our fears. That has further raised our awareness of how much we all need sleep to function and stay healthy and happy.

We’re willing to throw money at the problem: the value of the global sleep economy grows inexorably year on year. It is predicted to hit an astonishing $518 billion in 2022. That’s a lot of eye masks, mattress toppers, and lavender sprays. We know more than ever, too, about the timing, quality and patterns of our sleep thanks to advances in wearable technology. You can find out everything from your oxygen levels to your sleep phases; a wristband can do everything short of interpreting your dreams now (and that can’t be far behind). But we are still, fundamentally, getting sleep wrong.

Sometimes we know very well we are doing it wrong but we can’t – or won’t – stop. My late-night scrolling is a recog- nised phenomenon: ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’, a term derived from the Mandarin expression bàofùxìng áoyè. It’s what you do when you should sleep but are also desperate to carve out a bit of time for yourself from a packed day of work and other obligations. ‘I should go to bed’, I tell myself every night, ‘but I deserve some me-time. I matter!’ Then I watch an hour of videos of owls and cats making friends. Might it be better to say ‘I matter’ by getting eight hours of sleep? Sure, but where’s the fun in that?

We make other mistakes too, because sleep science is still in its infancy: it’s a discipline where we are still very much feeling our way in the dark. That means – advice can be contradictory or counterintuitive. Now, science tells us, you shouldn’t try to ‘catch up’ on sleep at the weekends or with long naps. It upsets your circadian rhythms (your body clock, which regulates your sleeping and waking cycles). Or if you think the way to maximise sleep is to spend as long as possible in bed, think again. One of the most successful current therapies for insomnia is ‘sleep restriction’, which only allows you to stay in bed for as long as you normally sleep, even if that’s just two or three hours. Sleep ‘efficiency’ – the proportion of your time in bed you actually spend asleep – is now believed to be more important than hours horizontal.

The possibilities for confusion are endless: for a basic animal instinct, sleep has become awfully complicated. Don’t use potions and herbal remedies, experts say. Fussy rituals and aids tend to be counterproductive. Time to take those herbal remedies that promise ‘quality shuteye’ and ‘dreamier dreams’ out of my online basket. Should you take a hot bath before bed? Probably, but don’t make it too hot – a lower body temperature helps you sleep. Would more exercise help? It might, but make sure you finish 90 minutes before you go to bed. Otherwise, the endorphins could keep you awake. And here’s another oddity – research suggests historically we used to divide our night’s sleep into two phases: a first shift at dusk, then a break of an hour or two, then a second sleep. Perhaps some of us are still wired for this ‘biphasic sleep’ and what we’re calling insomnia is actually entirely natural?

It’s enough to keep anyone awake at night. What to do? Here’s my (intensely hypocritical) sleep prescription: don’t think about it. Get some natural light during the day and put your phone away at night, sure. But apart from that, the best thing you can do is give up and let the sleepy mammal inside you do whatever it needs to do. We know how to sleep. We just have to relax and let it happen. Which is exactly what I’ll be telling myself tonight, just as soon as I’ve watched this video of a cat being surprised by a cucumber…

Photo by Alex Telfer, Illustration by Indre Surdokaite

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