Why sleeping all night is not normal…


By Ruth Monk

I really love sleep.

Every night I get into bed and do a weird little happy wriggle, sigh and say..”I love bed”. Every night! My husband is a patient man.

And I am really good at going to sleep. I can sleep on the couch, or the beach, or under a tree. I can sleep on a plane and in a fishing boat. And definitely in a car. In fact I can say, hand to heart, that I have slept in all these places sometime in the last year.

But I regularly have times in my life when, even though I can easily go to sleep at bedtime, I can’t stay asleep.

2, 3 am rolls around and I am awake. Wide eyed, brain whirring. In the past I have had a chronic illness – this was the worst time for waking up regularly. I would be lucky if I slept through the night twice a week. Nowadays, stress will do this to me. My poor little brain won’t switch off. And it’s always the same. I am awake for exactly 2 hours. No more, no less. I have tried many techniques with varying degrees of success

Focusing on my breathing sometimes helps. Counting to four as I inhale, then four as I exhale. Repeat. Eating small dinners helps. I have terrible sleep if I am too full (or have too much alcohol on board). My body is just having to work too hard to rest.

I have a great technique where I pull each thought out one at a time and assess it. Is it urgent? This means does it need to be fixed right now, such as locking the front door or turning the oven off. (Not usually any of these). Is it trash? This is those fights or conversations you had 4 years ago that you are now rehashing in your brain and wishing you had handled differently. What is that about…? Or is it actionable and can you do anything about it right now. And usually yes you can do something, but not right now so you may as well just go to sleep.

I also like to pack suitcases. Not physically, but I think of a dream holiday location and I go through all the clothes I would take (this doesn’t work if you are actually going on holiday, then it’s just stressful). It takes my mind off what is stressing me and it’s monotonous enough it helps me go back to sleep.

But the best thing I ever found that has helped was knowledge. The knowledge that western society is the only society that expects us to get all of our sleep all at once.

Our bodies are just not designed to do this.

It has only been in the last 200 years that we have started sleeping in this way. Prior to that we used to have a first sleep and a second sleep. (what scientists call biphasic) This involved going to bed about 9 or 10, sleeping for approximately 3 hours, waking up for a while and then having a second sleep until dawn. (sound familiar?) But when they were awake they would get up and do stuff. Then Robert Owen in 1817 decided the day should be broken up into “8 hours work, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours rest”. And with the introduction of gas and electric lighting in the 1800’s people were staying up longer. But they were still getting up at the same time, so they were more tired, making it easier for them to “sleep through the night”. Until eventually it became the norm, and the expectation.

In many cultures from South America, Africa, central and southeast Asia, and the Pacific this is still the normal approach to sleep. Bed time is fluid, nap times are common. Those countries with a Spanish influence have a siesta, then later bedtimes, which again is breaking their sleep into those two.

Western sleep conditions are the unusual ones. And I soon as I learnt this all of a sudden I didn’t feel so bad. I stopped being wound up and learnt to relax when I was awake.

Because I am not weird… it’s actually the man fast asleep next to me that’s the strange one.

Published: 30/07/17

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