Sleep is impossible to control, so let’s stop shaming insomniacs

Can’t sleep? You’re not alone. One in three of us suffers with insomnia, so let’s give this incessant sleep shaming a rest.

Any insomniac worth their lavender pillow spray will tell you there’s nothing worse than not being able to fall asleep at night. 

Everything takes on a hellish quality at 3am. Tossing and turning for hours on end while your mind rockets through every tiny fear, doubt or anxiety you’ve ever experienced is maddening. And everything is made worse by the knowledge that, in just a few hours, you’ll be sat at your desk and expected to efficiently make it through an eight-hour working day.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that sleep is the last thing in the world anyone wants to think about after finally making it through a sleepless night. And yet, almost everywhere we look, we are bombarded with messages about this most-elusive state of consciousness.

Let me paint you a picture, shall I? You leave the house, and the first thing your bleary eyes focus on is a giant image of a woman yawning prettily on the side of a bus (she is advertising a vitamin supplement that claims it can help combat tiredness). Next, you get on the tube and are accosted with photos of the latest luxury bedding brands. 

So you browse social media for respite but – surprise! – up pops a post about yet another sleep study, which informs you that getting more sleep is good for you. Then there’s that new piece of research which has found a link between insomnia and an increased likelihood of developing a deadly disease. And the story which suggests there’s an association between sleep and depression.

It’s a relentless trend, and it shows no signs of slowing down. 

Our obsession with sleep shows no signs of slowing down.

Sleep has become a national obsession, and getting the optimum amount of shut-eye has fast become a smug indicator of self-care. Indeed, it’s never been cooler to stay in and get an early night: just look at the plethora of new gadgets on the market, all of which vow to track your sleep, improve your sleep, optimise your sleep or, y’know, help you get to sleep in the first place. 

Our fascination with tracking our sleep is now so acute that psychologists have coined the term ‘orthosomnia’ to refer to it. And even the hippest of millennials are bandying the hideously clinical phrase ‘sleep hygiene’ all over their social media feeds.

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s quite simple: sleep is impossible to control, and selling this ideal of a long, restful night – as if it were something we could order on Deliveroo – does more harm than good. When it comes to our health, sleep is an entirely separate entity to things like exercise and nutrition. Eating five portions of fruit and veg a day, or hitting a step count of 10,000 steps, are attainable goals that we have the power to achieve. 

Sleep, though, is not. Lumping it into the same lifestyle category as areas that we do have control over puts far too much pressure on us to achieve it, kickstarting the hamster wheel of worry that keeps us awake at night.

I don’t need to tell you that obsessing about sleep is a vicious cycle; the more you think about it, the more anxious you become. The more anxious you become, the less you sleep. And the less you sleep, the more you think about it. And so on.

We all know the benefits of a good night’s sleep, and I’d hazard a guess that we would all choose to get more kip if we could. But what these advertising campaigns and research projects and scientific studies fail to grasp is the fact that most of us simply can’t get to sleep at night. And we’re all desperate for a solution; Googling the phrase ‘how to sleep’ pings back 2,860 million web pages. In contrast, searching for ‘benefits of sleep’ reaps a comparably paltry amount of 1,600 million pages.So why is everyone focusing on highlighting the latter, rather than solving the problem at hand?

I know I’m not alone in my insomnia; the NHS estimates that one in three of us suffers from it at any given time. So rather than hailing sleep as some magical tonic that makes the world go around, maybe we should take a step back and think about the messaging here. Because giving it a rest could be just the solution we need.

This piece was originally published in July 2018, and has been updated throughout

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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