Can’t Sleep? I Learned How to Deal with Sleep Deprivation, and So Can You
April 27, 2020
Over the last several years, a mix of stress, age, and a punishing travel schedule (read: flights every week for 5 years) led to my insomnia. What made matters worse was worrying about not getting enough sleep. I was stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea! In my quest for my rather elusive beauty sleep, I tried everything, from aromatherapy to sleeping pills to acupressure to a glass of wine. Alas, these only gave me passing relief. Melatonin was the most effective but taking it endlessly was hardly a viable solution. What was I doing wrong? And was I the only one who just couldn’t seem to get a proper shuteye?
Turns out I wasn’t the only one. I did a lot of reading and found this:
The World Health Organisation recommends eight hours of sleep a night, but one in two people are trying to survive on six hours or less sleep a night. Professor Matthew Walker calls this the sleep loss epidemic. There has been a global rise in sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea. Two-thirds of adults in developed nations do not get the recommended 8 hours of sleep every night. This affects people’s productivity, health, and work-life balance. In a recent survey of 2,800 American workers, nearly 60% of young professionals (between the ages of 18 and 34) report losing sleep over work, compared with just 29% of responders over the age of 55. So, if you feel tired on most days, have trouble retaining information or concentrating, or often feel like you got off on the wrong side of the bed, it’s probably because you didn’t spend enough time on that damned bed, the one you seem to be avoiding like the Great Plague.
How do we combat this epidemic? Here’s what I learnt from my personal experience:
Sleep Loss Has Real Health Consequences
The first step to combating an issue is to acknowledge its presence. I started by monitoring my lifestyle and finding patterns. Were there days on which I was finding it particularly difficult to sleep? Was there a recurring pattern? Flight days being a given, I realised I slept lesser on days I was more stressed than usual. If I had a niggling worry about something, my sleep would go for a toss. I am what you’d call a high-functioning individual, so while I could get through my workday without much tribulation, I started noticing physical symptoms which gradually became harder to ignore. I felt tired all the time and I was experiencing regular musculoskeletal pain. So, I visited my doctor who diagnosed me with fibromyalgia (widespread pain, tenderness, and fatigue, making it even more difficult to sleep)! It was finally time to find a solution.
Of Trial and Error
Locking down what works for you will mostly be a game of trial and error. In addition to everything I mentioned at the beginning, I even experimented with smart mattresses (the ones which claim to sense your sleep movements and adjust accordingly to give you uninterrupted slumber), apps like Headspace (featuring Andy Puddicombe’s soothing British accent), and even home remedies like tying fenugreek seeds in a cheesecloth and applying them to specific pressure points before going to bed. After what seemed like nights of insomnia, I got my first full night’s shuteye by drinking a glass of nutmeg, cinnamon, and fennel mixed in water.
Around the same time, I visited a sleep therapist who recommended starting mindfulness meditation, which has provided the best results so far. For those of you who are hearing of this for the first time, a mindfulness awareness program teaches meditation and other exercises designed to help us focus on moment-by-moment experiences, thoughts, and emotions. As part of the process, we are asked to focus on our breathing and bring our mind’s attention to the present without digressing to past/future concerns. According to Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, mindfulness meditation evokes something known as the relaxation response—a deep physiological shift in the body that’s the opposite of the stress response. This meditation works on the neuroscientific philosophy of conscious breathworks, a technique which says just by focusing on controlling our breathing, we might succeed in gaining access to regions of the brain we normally can’t activate! A daily session of 20-odd minutes worked well for me to consciously slow down and calm my restless mind.
Get into a sleep routine
Don’t trade your established sleep routine for anything—unless, of course, it is monumental enough for you to lose sleep over (pardon the intended pun). According to the sleep therapist I visited, the first step is to ensure your sleeping area shouldn’t metamorphose into multiple avatars through the day. So many of us are gig economy workers—we’re working from home, which means we could be working, eating, lazing, and sleeping all at the same place—our bed! Simply put, reserve the bed just for sleeping and not for working or lazing through the day. Make an effort to carve out a separate work area or head to a coffee shop or a coworking space.
Luckily for me, my bedroom was already a sanctuary on its own. I gave up caffeine post noon; alcohol was never a problem, so I had one fewer causal factor to deal with. Also, I became more aware of the relentless stimuli we face daily being constantly connected and wired. I disengaged from all electronic devices, especially those with screens, post 10 pm because the blue light from these screens makes our brain think it’s daytime, making it harder for us to fall asleep. In fact, all of this falls under what neuroscientists call Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). So now, once I retire to my bedroom every night, I practice my regimen of mindfulness meditation and try to consciously switch off my brain by 12am.
Which brings me to the million-dollar question: Have I successfully conquered my sleep deprivation? Hell no! I still have a long, long way to go, but I have learned to deal with it. If I slept for 4 hours a night before, now I sleep for 6—a marked improvement if you ask me and I can see a remarkable difference in my energy levels through the day. And every time I feel the urge to get back to pick up my phone or turn on Netflix, I tell myself one thing—that umpteenth episode of Black Mirror can wait, my sleep can’t.
By: Apurva Purohit