Last night I had about two hours of sleep, the night before maybe 3, the night before that it was on and off for about 5 hours (mostly off).  Nothing new as I have often experienced periods of insomnia.

A quick internet search advised, “You have insomnia if you regularly: find it hard to go to sleep; wake up several times during the night; lie awake at night; wake up early and cannot go back to sleep.” And I am wondering if I really do have insomnia.

What’s with this 7-8 hours required sleep a night baloney anyway? Thomas Edison, the famous inventor, required only about three to four hours of shut-eye each night, regarding sleep as ‘a heritage from our cave days’.   UK’s longest serving Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was famous for getting by on just four hours and Donald Trump works with about three hours in the sack.  Still on the rich and/or famous, Oprah Winfrey is known for a solid 8 hours, four times more than Nikola Tesla who required as little as two hours a night, according to his biography.  Clearly people are different when it comes to their sleep requirements.

For years not sleeping the “required” or “recommended” amount caused me to label myself an insomniac and that caused more distress that the lack of sleep!   In fact according to Stephanie Romiszewski who has 15 years of sleep medicine research and has helped  around 10,000 patients with all sorts of sleep disorders, when she treats people for poor sleep she finds it’s the anxiety of not sleeping she often has to work on, because of the expectation that they should be getting a certain amount (6-8) hours per night and they have also listened to a lot of other misconceptions about sleeping.

Research into sleep is still relatively new. Romiszewski states that there is no formula to sleep perfection each night, because it doesn’t exist. She says “Your sleep across the life span is not some sort of linear process. It changes. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes your down, accept it, it’s normal.   It’s the best thing you could ever do. Liberate yourself from the fear of not doing something perfectly every day. I mean think about it, that’s a lot of pressure to put on one bodily function”. 

This really resonates with me because for the longest time I thought that solving irregular sleeping lay in certain misconceptions like, for example, getting to bed at the same time every night, not drinking caffeinated drinks at least 12 hours before bed time, meditation, sleeping in a darkened room etc.

It was common for me to become somewhat anxious, stressed and low, crippled with anxiety over sleep problems. How could I not get 7-8 hours like everyone else unless I had polished off a bottle of wine and taken a Xanax?   According to Romiszewski it is this fear of what happens when we miss out on sleep which is a bigger problem than the lack of sleep.   My anxiety about not sleeping was fuelled by expectation (7 hours a night for optimal functioning) and non-evidence-based information that lack of sleep early in your life can cause conditions like Alzheimer’s and other chronic illnesses… that in itself is enough to keep me awake. 

We also don’t know why we sleep but we do know what happens when we don’t, and we like to track this now. There is a lot of technology and information such as watches telling us how many hours we are sleeping and its quality.   Ironically the information and advice dished out on sleep would make my sleeping worse.  For example, I read that going to bed at the same time every night was key but when I did that, my insomnia got worse as I would then spend 4 hours tossing, turning and sighing heavily before I would give up and get out of bed to do something else, simply because I was not tired. 

It seems strange that I can force myself to stay awake when I want but I can’t force myself to sleep at will!  You cannot dictate to your body when you sleep although you can dictate the opportunities for sleep.

I get over it now by realising that it is perfectly normal to have sleep problems and that ‘insomnia’ is just a different pattern of sleeping.  I had never thought about it like that…I think we get so anxious in the middle of the night because our perception is that everyone else is sleeping but you, when really, it’s more about the quality of sleep rather than the quantity. 

I can’t control my sleep (at least, the level that I seem to want to) but even a ‘good’ (i.e. ‘long’) sleeper will never sleep equally well each night.  It would be impossible to sleep the exact same number of hours all the time, and nor does my body want to do that.  If I recognise that sleep is trying to react to all the other variables in my life – work, family, mood – it is logical that I should embrace flexibility when it comes to sleep.   I need to accept that sometimes, I am just not tired.   It wasn’t 3 this morning, even though I felt I should be.   I am tired as I write this though, and that’s fine:   At other times I am going to be extra sleepy.   We must build up sleepiness in order to sleep and the only way to do that is to be awake for longer. 

Ergo, if my days are not the same each day, my sleep probably won’t be either.   This is oversimplified of course, but just highlights an important issue – you can’t control everything.   According to Romiszewski, we need to rid ourselves of all these bizarre ideologies and notions that we feel exist around our sleep because ‘perfect is the enemy of the good! Perfect doesn’t exist in sleep’. Or to paraphrase, ‘recommended’ is the enemy of rest and relaxation and there’s no ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ when you sit the sleep exam!