The under-5s aren’t the only ones with monsters hiding under the bed. So what precisely is keeping us adults up at night?
Balloons in the storm drain; bubbles of blood emerging from the plughole: 1990 saw the release of Stephen King’s It and with it, millions of pre-teens lost hours of sleep to the shadowy shape of Pennywise the clown creeping ominously up through the bathroom sink. Twenty-three years on, and it’s a slightly older generation being kept awake – except this time by altogether more complex demons: our lives and emotions. So what is the solution for that little ghoul lurking at the bottom of your psyche?
Night-time is a minefield for the over-thinkers among us. It offers the perfect window to do the things we so often push to the back of our minds during our busy working day. And it’s an unshakable sort of anxiety. 1am: we might fret about what airborne diseases we’ve picked up on the bus. 2am heralds detailed analysis of the time we got drunk at the office party and fell asleep with our head in our boss’s lap. 3am: we start flicking through our sent emails in case we offended someone. And so it goes on; the niggles and questions that only night can bring.
But why do we succumb to stress-induced insomnia so often? “On a basic level, tiredness leads on to depressing thoughts,” says psychologist Emma Kenny. “But also, it’s no coincidence that we feel dark and alone at night. Many people report ‘catastrophe’ thinking in the early hours because the silence magnifies thoughts that would already be seen as ‘difficult’ during the day.”
WHAT KEEPS YOU AWAKE?
It’s not just trivial matters that make up our nightly repertoire of worries. We agonise over larger decisions and life-stage dilemmas; the fact that all our friends are getting engaged and we aren’t; that our sister is moving to the suburbs and we’re stuck in a pokey inner-city flat; whether or not that article that said anyone who isn’t pregnant by 32 should abandon all hope is technically correct.
Martin Lewis is also in our thoughts (not like that). New research by Circle Housing Group found that a third of women are unable to sleep because of fears over finances (this figure rises to nearly 40% for those between the ages of 25-34). “I spend hours fretting over monthly bills, fees and upcoming outgoings,” says Sarah Matthews, 29, a speech and language therapist from Lewisham. “I’m trying to buy a house so I worry firstly about the expense; secondly that it’s all going to fall through; and thirdly that I will lose my job and won’t be able to afford it all anyway.”
A reported 18% of us also stress about our ‘to-do’ lists and problems at work like insurmountable piles of paperwork or taut managerial relations.
In some ways it is understandable; night-time is often our only opportunity to organise our thoughts, to analyse memories and opinions about the day’s activities. It’s all part of an unrelenting desire held by the female brain to ‘sort’ things. And it appears night demons really are the mark of our gender. Most recently, reproductive hormones such as progesterone and oestrogen have been implicated in anxiety – particularly around the time of our period when hormone levels fluctuate. Changes in a woman’s body temperature during her monthly cycle have also been linked to why women have more disturbed sleep than men.
NOT SO SWEET DREAMS
Even when we do fall asleep, our anxieties seep into our subconscious. Dream interpreters have long held that there are shared common symbols occurring in nightmares, from crumbling teeth (one of the most common) to running from invisible terrors. And many psychologists maintain that women are much more likely to have these sorts of nightmares than men. According to a study of 193 male and female volunteers at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, women have more nightmares because they carry their worries into their dreams, and continue to process emotional concerns while asleep. The same study also theorised that women use their dreams as a subconscious coping strategy.
But just because we are already predisposed to night anxiety, it shouldn’t mean we need to lose any more sleep. “The key is to try and live in the present, although this is easier said than done,” says Kenny. “The art is to try and see that all we have is now; our worries aren’t physically happening now and therefore don’t exist. If you’re struggling, allow yourself an allotted ‘worry’ time during the day where you focus on planning bills, confronting personal issues or resolving spats, so that they shouldn’t creep into your mind at night.” That, and a huge stockpile of meditation tapes…