One of the courses at the mental health day unit that I attended last summer was on sleep hygiene. I don’t remember much about it except for being amused when three of the attendees were talking about the anguish of going for days without a decent amount of sleep while three others snored their way through the session.
At that point I was sleeping fine and felt slightly smug in my inability to relate to either group. What I didn’t realise then was how much the sedative effects of my anti-psychotic medication were helping me. Over the months that followed this gradually became apparent as I found myself sleeping soundly through one night, the majority of the following day and for a second night. I began to miss working days and social arrangements as alarm clocks and phone calls failed to penetrate my slumber. Some mornings my partner would literally pull me out of bed only for me to return an hour or so later when I found myself asleep with my head on my desk.
This disruption was a major factor in my decision to come off this medication in February. A month later, the pendulum has swung the other way. Night after night, getting to sleep is problematic, with vivid dreams and disturbing nightmares haunting the reduced hours that I do get.
This experience of first too much sleep and now not enough made me particularly alert to news of World Sleep Day® on Friday 17th March. This annual awareness day is the brainchild of the World Sleep Society, this year with the slogan ‘Sleep soundly, nurture life’. According to the official website, its goal is ‘to be a celebration of sleep and a call to action on important issues related to sleep, including medicine, education, social aspects and driving’. In 2016, the initiative had almost four hundred delegates in seventy two countries.
I diligently read the advice in a press release referencing this event. Hints ranged from the well-known (reduce caffeine intake) to the frustrating (aim for seven hours of solid sleep per night – surely this isn’t a tip but the goal itself?!). There was a useful reminder to avoid screen time for an hour before bed but no amazing new insight into how to help oneself get some shut eye.
I was, I guess, hoping for some secret code or magic key that would unlock the mystery of sleep that I’m currently experiencing. I suppose that this is what many of us are searching for when we turn to so-called expert advice or self-help books or click bait articles that tantalise us with promises to reveal secret tips to a good night’s sleep/a six pack/a better marriage/a clutter free home (delete as appropriate).
The promise of a simple secret to solve a complex issue lures us back again and again. We live in hope that we will stumble upon the magic answer as if there’s a Rumpelstiltskin of sleep sitting at the end of our bed each night; give him the fairy tale code word and we’ll never be plagued by insomnia again.
Rationally I know that there are no simple secrets or magic answers or fairy tale code words yet admitting this feels like hope of a solution is extinguished. This is perhaps why there are two books on sleep sitting unopened on my nightstand. Leaving them unread keeps alive my optimism that they contain the answer that I’ve been looking for. Reading them will only confirm that they don’t.
This isn’t just about sleep. Nor is it confined to those of us with mental health issues. For many people, the search to find easy ways to lose weight or get fit occupies much of their thoughts. However such quests can take on a particular urgency and desperation when mental health is involved, as both our symptoms, and side effects can disrupt central aspects of everyday life such as sleep patterns, our weight and activity levels. Furthermore dealing with such issues becomes more pressing when we are living with mental health conditions because they can compound our struggles. Not getting enough sleep, for instance, is further detrimental to our mental and physical state.
From my own recent experience, I know that efforts to improve my sleep hygiene are useful and important. Searching for more information to help myself is understandable. However by focusing on these outward manifestations, are we distracting ourselves from the more difficult underlying issues? Is obsessing about sleep, and all the tips that I already know and use, an avoidance tactic?
It certainly feels easier to concentrate on tangible aspects of life rather than addressing the root issues. It is less challenging for me to spend an hour reading Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time than it is for me to sit with my case manager exploring the debilitating anxiety that undoubtedly contributes to my sleeplessness. I’d rather scan a magazine for dieting tips than sit quietly with the rollercoaster of feelings that drives my mid-afternoon comfort eating.
In my emotional regulation therapy group, we are currently looking at the concept of radical acceptance and applying it in our own lives. Perhaps I need to let World Sleep Day® pass me by and instead radically accept that I’m in a season of troubled sleep.