“I'm an insomniac: here's why you should never drive yourself to despair over lack of sleep”

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Deborah Cicurel
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Writer Deborah Cicurel has suffered with an insomnia since she was a child, but says it may not be all bad news. Here, she explains why finding it a challenge to get eight hours every single night may not be such a terrible thing…

Bedtime: a happy place most people look forward to all day. Stepping into their pyjamas, snuggling down into the duvet with a good book, and then finally, at a reasonable time like 10.30pm or 11.00pm, switching off the lights, kissing their partner (or cat)  goodnight, and falling into an easy, deep sleep, until the morning alarm goes off and they do it all over again.

But for the rest of us - a third of us, as estimated by the NHS - sleep is an unattainable pleasure, a rare delight to be experienced sporadically each night, but which is constantly dangled in front of us as a life-giving force.

With a third of us suffering from at least mild insomnia, and sleep such a hot issue at the moment - with celebrities like Arianna Huffington promising to help you “sleep your way to the top” and books like The Sleep Revolution regularly appearing on bestseller charts - the topic of those elusive forty winks are always in the press.

Articles warn us that if we don’t sleep enough, we could damage our careers, not earn as much as our colleagues and even ruin our health - but as a lifelong insomniac, I feel it’s time to put a stop to this scaremongering.

While no one in their right mind would argue that not sleeping is good for you (but hey, we can’t sleep, so we’re not in our right mind), a few studies looking into sleep have given us hope.

According to some experts, sleep deprivation can actually aid our creativity, with Psychology Today asking the question, "If everybody had a career they loved, would they spend less time sleeping and more time working?"

It's not hard to fathom that the most creative people in our society are unable to switch off come bedtime: it's easier said than done to turn off your brain completely if you're thinking about the presentation you have to put together, or the song you have to write, or the painting you have to finish. One article by Fast Company even argues: "if you’re trying to do creative work, you’ll actually have more luck when you’re more tired and your brain isn’t functioning as efficiently."

There's even research to show that a lack of sleep can help reduce post-traumatic stress disorder, with one researcher from the University of Massachusetts saying insomnia can be a "healthy reaction" to an unsettling event. 

Furthermore, research carried out by a professor at the University of Warwick found that while so many of us dream of a long night's sleep, too much snoozing can actually be bad for us. 

The study found that adults who usually sleep for more than eight hours are at risk of dying earlier than those sleep for between six and eight hours.

Does this mean that we should cut short our weekend lie-ins, that we should panic if we finally do manage to get those elusive forty winks. That we should strictly regulate each night of sleep and seek a doctor's help if we sleep less than six hours, or more than eight?

Absolutely not. We should take all such articles pertaining to how much sleep you need - whether fearful or reassuring - with a pinch of salt.

After all, if we thought of all the potential dangers that could afflict us on a day-to-day basis, we'd never leave our homes (and even then, the majority of accidents occur in the kitchen, so we still wouldn't be safe from danger).

The problem is that sleep, as such a pervasive, powerful act that we all must take part in, like or not, is always in the headlines.

When we're groggy and tired after another night flicking through Facebook while our partner snoozes peacefully beside us, it's hard not to click on doom-and-gloom headlines reprimanding us for not getting enough sleep - as if we had a choice! - and warning us we're likely to suffer from heart disease, obesity, lack of productivity and an endless list of ailments.

But according to experts, worrying about the perceived dangers of not sleeping can actually make insomnia worse. In other words, lying awake worrying about not falling asleep only builds up anxiety and leads to self-fulfilling prophecies which mean we dread bedtime and are convinced we'll never fall asleep.

"Often, people believe that the internet makes it easier for us to discover what is wrong when we are restless, not sleeping and anxious," says psychotherapist Charlotte Dunsby-Ferguson. 

"But using Google and scouring the internet to diagnose illnesses can actually make anxiety worse. Worrying about perceived symptoms can affect your daily life and may interfere with your sleep, appetite and job performance.

"A lot of what we can find on the internet is anecdotal and personal opinion, which bears little scientific validity," she adds. "It is key to resist the compulsion to self-diagnose and seek assurance from a professional."

Plus, according to some experts, there's no need to panic at all: some of us don't even need six hours of sleep a night in order to be healthy, positive members of society. Scientists at the Centre for Applied Genomics in Philadelphia found that people with a particular gene variant - ‘p.Tyr362His’ - were able to function on fewer than five hours of sleep per night.

“Individuals aged between 20 and 60 need on average seven to eight hours of sleep per night, but keep in mind that not everyone need 8 hours of sleep per night," says David Brudö, CEO of mental health and personal development app Remente. "About 20% of the adult population need less than 6 hours of sleep, so it's important to find your circadian rhythm.

"There are many techniques available that you can try out in order to improve your sleep quality: some of them might work for you, others may not," he adds. "So don’t feel stressed from reading articles on different techniques and what diseases lack of sleep can cause.

"There are many myths about sleep and how much we should sleep in order to feel good. Having an unrealistic view on sleep can make you believe that your sleep quality is worse than it is actually is, and make you feel stressed. 

"Lying awake at night, or waking up again and again, isn’t detrimental to your health in most cases. Your body can itself compensate for lost sleep by sleeping more the next night.

"Insomnia might be frustrating but remember: we function well with only a few hours' of sleep.”

As an insomniac myself, I'm proud if I ever manage to fall asleep before 3am. With the rest of the world on a different timezone, it's hard to go about daily life like a "normal" person who gets enough sleep: it's hard to wake up at 7am with everyone else, hard to stay awake during boring tasks, hard to deal with suddenly feeling awake the second my head hits the pillow.

But what's harder is the fear instilled in us from the multitude of scaremongering articles out there warning us we'll die early, break up with our partners and lag behind at work, earning less and missing out on promotions.

Let's not forget that Maggie Thatcher slept just four hours a night, and she had a pretty high-powered job. 

Plus, research even shows there's such a thing as a "sleep placebo" - where people who believe they've slept well (even when they didn't) perform better on tests than those who are told they slept badly - showing that perhaps a "good night's sleep" really is all in our head.

Maybe instead of self-diagnosing and working ourselves into a panic, we should take these studies with a pinch of salt and remember one thing: we're all different. Even though your colleague may boast about the ten hours she regularly gets, would that ever really work for you? Maybe you need that extra couple of hours to digest the day, read a book and plan tomorrow's outfit. Maybe you need the time to hypothesise about Making A Murderer. Maybe you just function better with a shorter sleep, despite what the studies say. 

As long as you're feeling alert and happy, and you're not driving yourself to despair over lack of sleep, you'll be just fine. 

Image: MMPR


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Deborah Cicurel

Deborah Cicurel is a freelance journalist who writes about everything from lifestyle and travel to fashion and entertainment. She loves spicy maki rolls, cosy socks and visiting far-flung destinations, and is unable to walk past a dog on the street without stopping to befriend it.