What’s the prevalence of insomnia? Or the incidence? No one really knows, while anecdotally it is one of these things that divide the world in two camps: either you sleep, or you don’t. Insomniacs will recognise the symptoms straight away – a slight drag in someone’s pace, trouble keeping their gaze focussed, a grey and haunted appearance. It’s a great immediate bonding thing, because of the struggle that daytime activities become, and the dread of night time ones.
For most non sleepers become obsessed about their sleeping rituals, or the rules of sleep hygiene. They’re basically all that the NHS can do for you. Your GP will tell you to control “all behavioural and environmental factors that precede sleep and may interfere with sleep”, or all these things that a normal sleeper takes for granted. No ‘stimulating substances or activities’, such as sports, TV, internet, coffee, alcohol, chocolate, spicy, or sugary food in the evening. Reserve your bedroom for sleep only. No noise. Make sure your mattress, pillows and bedding are comfortable. Establish a sleeping ritual. Find your favourite sleeping position. Aaaaaah.
This really, ultimately, is no better advice than ‘keep a bucket of water next to your bed’, presumably because a cold environment helps you to sleep, though no explanation was given in this case. After more than three months of not a single night of non-drugged sleep, the rules actually kept me from falling asleep. With the onset of sleeping pill resistance, I decided it was time for radical, private/non-NHS measures, so I got in touch with Guy ‘Wishing You the Best of Sleep’ Meadows. The first thing this Sleep Doctor told me was to forget about the rules. The fear of not being able to sleep becomes so engrained that it almost resembles a physical reaction, and this needs to be ‘unlearned’.
So the Sleep Doctor put me on a sleep diet and a Zen meditation course. And it worked. Within a few days I’d actually fallen asleep without taking sleeping pills. There are two secrets to it – exhaustion and acceptance. First you utterly exhaust yourself by halving the time you’re in bed. Even with the most sleep depriving gung-ho mind, your biological clock will kick in ultimately and send you to sleep. Second, to help the body to overcome the mind, you breathe deeply and meditate on the acceptance of your insomniac state. I tell you, the first time you wake up after a natural, deep sleep is a miracle.
A year later, I’m still amazed that the NHS offers no help for insomniacs. A condition that affects the quality of life of so many people in our uncertain and stressed out society, and all there is on offer are addictive pills and counterproductive sleep hygiene rules. There are some NHS sleep clinics but they’re more academic research centres for narcoleptics and their likes. The Sleep Doctor may not be a real Medical Doctor, but his receipts damn effective.
P.s. if you’re really into sleep and crazy Californian things, check out Steve Pavlina’s blogs about ‘how to become an early riser’. He always gets up at 5am, and only goes to bed when he’s really tired. His body is conditioned to wake early, so no questions are asked about why he has to be uber-hyper-active and go to the gym, eat breakfast, read the news, respond to emails – all before the start of the working day.