According to various commentaries, including from the World Health Organisation, insomnia is a global problem*. People acknowledge that the pace of life affects our quality of sleep, technology makes us easily interruptible at all hours of the day, and quite honestly there seems to be more to worry about every single day. No wonder so many of us wake up tired each morning. But what if something else is causing us to feel exhausted when we wake up?
When I was writing my book Answers In The Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal, I realised many of us have bought in to a big myth: that we all need eight hours sleep every night. If you buy any popular magazine that contains a ‘Sleep Special’, they’ll tell you that eight is the magic number. Ironically, I believe this might be just one reason we’re not always getting a good night’s rest and so wake up shattered the next day.
The scale of this myth means that we now largely plan our day around it – if you have to be up at 6 in the morning, you might work back eight hours and think this means you have to be in bed by 10pm. But what if you’re not sleepy then? Believing you have to be in bed by the allotted time, you might now be tossing and turning in bed unable to sleep, growing more stressed because as far as you know you ‘should’ be in the land of nod by now. The irony of that is, there’s no way your brain will authorise sleep when you’re stressed. You might eventually manage to doze off but wake up shattered the next day.
But there’s another thing.
We know that we sleep in cycles (Answers In The Dark contains a section called The Sleep Cycle Repair Kit), and these cycles follow a particular route. We ideally go to bed when we’re sleepy, complete a number of cycles and wake up naturally each day. The problem is, if you set your alarm for 6am (working forward eight hours from 10pm), it might actually be set to go off right slap-bang in the middle of deep sleep. This also happens when we take an afternoon nap and set our alarm for an hour, instead of a short amount like 20 minutes, or the full length of a sleep cycle (about 90-120 minutes). You wrench yourself out of bed, trying to continue with your day, only now you’re experiencing what’s sometimes known as the Hangover Effect – you’ve got a headache, your mouth is dry and you don’t know what year it is.
So here’s the tip: ditch the myth and focus on quality not quantity. Some people will need six hours, others might need 10 on any given day. When you’re a teenager you needed more sleep, just as you might when you’re poorly, and as you’re older you might find you need less. If you have to get up at, say, 7am, but know you’re naturally awake at 6 o’clock, don’t trick yourself in to thinking you’ll just get another cheeky hour in – you might find you then wake up feeling groggier than before.
Of course if you work shifts, that can be more challenging as can be the circumstances that are affecting your sleep in the first place (the video below might help). There is a benefit in taking power naps when you can (I talk more about that in the book too). But where possible try to work out when you’re naturally wakeful and set your alarm for then, rather than wrenching you out of deep sleep.
Measure your sleep quality by how refreshed you feel when you wake up, and where possible try to go to bed when you’re sleepy and wake up naturally, as close to when you need to get up. You can also try some mindfulness activities (there’s a range of these in the book), as well as talk to someone during the day, about what might be keeping you up at night.