I come from a long line of so-called ‘night owls’. Sleep is elusive in our family, and it is common (if not the norm) for us all to be awake well into the early hours of the morning, something I haven’t found any easier during term time. Luckily, everyone I live with is very forgiving of my early-morning grumpiness and late-night clattering around the kitchen for yet another cup of chamomile tea.
Once I’m asleep, I’m dead to the world, it’s just arriving there that’s the problem. My constant goal is to fall asleep at around midnight, which is much easier during busier days, but I can still find myself awake much later into the night. Usually, I feel physically tired, but my brain simply hasn’t caught up and I’m restlessly torn between giving sleep another chance or giving up in order to do something else. Anxiety can be a compounding factor, all culminating in that well-worn resignation to a less-than-adequate night of sleep.
The anxiety surrounding insomnia is, in my opinion, worse than the lack of sleep itself: yes, slogging through the day without a full eight hours isn’t exactly ideal, but it’s much easier when uncomplicated by the level of stress that can often precede it. The realisation that you simply can’t sleep triggers a natural anxiety response to look for an immediate solution, which isn’t feasible when the cause of your stress is wakefulness – no amount of overthinking will propel you into unconsciousness.
The rationalisation of why insomnia triggers anxiety has helped me reframe what it means to get a ‘good night’s rest’. I’ve let go of the idea that the only solution is to fall asleep as quickly as possible. Now the stakes of falling asleep, getting ‘enough’ sleep, and waking up at an ‘acceptable’ time feel much more flexible, and I have been able to build a routine that works for me.
In the immediate situation, I usually get out of bed completely and focus on a nighttime activity that is both relaxing and requires very little brainpower. As much as I hate to say it, it really is best to avoid screen-time if you can’t sleep. My personal favourite nighttime activities include painting, reading and reorganising drawers or shelves in my room. Sometimes, when I’m really physically exhausted and my brain is still clinging to wakefulness (the most frustrating variation), I’ll stay in bed, and listen to a podcast I’ve already heard before on the lowest audible volume, letting it wash over me whilst I rest. The best thing you can do is make a compromise with yourself, and acceptance can combat anxiety – more often than not, resignation has allowed sleep to finally creep up on me.
Amending my routine has helped me mitigate the effects of insomnia. The flexibility of student life has helped with this, and if I have no morning commitments then there is no reason why my productivity would be hindered just because I’ve woken up at midday. With a little forward-thinking, I’m managing a lot better than I used to be when forcing myself into a sleep-deprived nine-to-five.
In a recent conversation with my mother, she explained her technique for getting some semblance of a full night’s sleep: unlike myself, she struggles not only with falling asleep but also with holding onto it, and as a teaching assistant, she doesn’t often have the luxury of sleeping in. Yet, ever the Francophile, she imagines and decorates her very own fictional Provencal villa until she falls asleep, coming back to roughly where she left off at each interval. It’s simple and works surprisingly well for her – at least well enough that she can face a full day of chasing after eight-year-olds without too much dread. I think it just goes to show that working with your insomnia, instead of blindly pushing back against the consequences of losing sleep can breed the simplest of solutions.
At the end of the day, it’s inconvenient to lose sleep. You’re more irritable, less alert, and heading to a nine am lecture on four hours sleep and a triple-shot latte is at least somewhat punishing for even the bubbliest of freshers. Yet, it is much easier to deal with when you haven’t spent the night before fighting against the inevitable. Compromising with the tools at your disposal can lead to surprisingly straightforward solutions, and can even help you catch a wink more of sleep.
Illustration credit: Victoria Cheng