I remember as a child waking up from a full night of sleep refreshed and excited about the day ahead, especially at the weekends and during the school holidays when the day was my own and all manner of adventures awaited me and my imaginary horse Dobbin. It will of course come as no surprise to any of you that I was rather a strange child…..
My parents were sticklers for routine and me, my brother and sister all had a fixed bedtime depending on our age, and after the teeth brushing and ‘last wee’ of the day we were tucked in, with traditional thick woollen blankets, soft warm pyjamas and on cold nights a hot water bottle. We were allowed to read in bed for half an hour, then it was lights out and I would drift off to sleep effortlessly and stay in The Land of Nod all night.
In my growing up years, we went from no TV, to a black and white box that churned and groaned in an attempt to change channel, to the ultimate luxury – a colour television. The TV lived in the living room, had three channels and much shorter broadcasting hours than we have now. I seem to remember there was nothing but the test card on much of the time.
This was before home computers and mobile phones, and watching TV was something we did as a family, following dramas week to week such as “The Jewel in The Crown” and then having to wait a week for the next instalment. We did eventually have central heating and double glazing installed but until then the bedroom was a chilly place, and getting into a cold bed required true grit (and thick pyjamas). Getting out of bed in the morning was nothing short of character building, who remembers seeing if Jack Frost had painted the INSIDE of their bedroom windows with ice? I remember breathing out and seeing my breath, and pledging that when I grew up I would learn to smoke so I could do this whenever I wanted to. (Sadly I did achieve this ambition though happily am now a non-smoker once again). As children we played outdoors a lot whatever the weather and had the freedom to roam around our neighbourhood unsupervised. I had no responsibilities (other than mucking out my imaginary horse, which I must confess I did not do regularly enough) and bed was a place I loved to be. Such different times.
Now as a 52 year old woman living through the menopause as well as the pandemic, I remember those days with a deep sense of longing. Could it be that the way life has changed so much in the past 50 years is affecting my sleep? I am fortunate that on the whole I have enjoyed good sleep, but I have had my fair share of bad nights in my life and sometimes these have triggered a bout of insomnia lasting anything from a few days to a few years. Here are a few examples:
-being so tired that I cannot keep my eyes open to carry on reading, but then lying awake in the dark for hours on end not particularly worried about anything, just awake.
-falling asleep quickly but waking up three or fours hours later convinced it’s the morning only to find that it is 1am and then just managing to drift off as the alarm clock beeps.
-going to bed rather drunk and waking up at 3am with a raging thirst and a banging head (no sympathy is required for this one).
-being woken in the night by my newborn attempting to latch on for a feed, a toddler with her elbow against my windpipe, a husband snoring and a cat digging its claws ecstatically into my hair whilst purring and drooling all over me. And sometimes all of these at once.
-waking in the night reliving an argument with a friend and not being able to let it go.
-being woken by ear-ache/tooth-ache/period pain having to get up to take pain killers getting back to sleep quickly but still feeling wiped out the next day.
-hot flushes that wake me up to throw off all the covers and open the window even when its snowing outside.
-not being able to get to sleep because my conscious is making me feel guilty about something I have done that needs to be atoned for.
-going to bed at 7pm sleeping through until 9am the next day and waking up still feeling tired.
-trying to fall asleep with a brain whirling with all the things I still need to do at work even though I am physically exhausted and yes I have written them all down on a notepad by my bed and I AM STILL AWAKE!!!!
-waking to the sound of a small child/cat/drunk friend projectile vomiting and spending the next two hours doing and redoing laundry. It turns out you can’t put vomit splattered bedding straight in the washing machine, you have to sluice it first.
-lying awake knowing that I need to address some issues in my relationship but afraid to rock the boat by starting a conversation about what needs to change in case it turns into an argument a cold war or even a break up.
-lying awake all night with a looming sense of dread that I cannot fully explain.
I bet some of these scenarios are familiar to many of you, and you can probably add quite a few more to the list. There will be times that our sleep is disturbed and there is nothing you can do about it, but often a couple of disturbed sleeps turns into a run of bad nights and sometimes chronic insomnia.
Globally around 15% of adults have difficulties sleeping and alarmingly children are now following the same trend. There are many good books available on sleep and as I am neither a scientist nor a sleep expert I would recommend that you go straight to the source for the hard science and wise advice (perhaps with your help we could come up with a list to share?) There are also a host of articles in newspapers and magazines, some of which are very informative, but many unbelievably trite and poorly informed. When I was researching this subject, I came across DOZENS of articles in the popular press full of such gems as: “Worry less and sleep like a baby.” In the words of the divine Stephen Fry such articles are:
“the art of stating the so fucking obvious it makes your nose bleed.”
Many of these articles are trying to sell you something- a weighted blanket, a herbal supplement, an app or a brand of pillow. But more dangerously, the sub-text of articles like these is that we are not doing enough, not trying hard enough and therefore our sleep difficulties are our own fault. This is such a pernicious belief to plant in the fertile soil of a mind, especially in these difficult days of living alongside the pandemic. To be constantly exposed to the idea that we should be coping better than we are encourages negative thoughts to flourish like weeds which can quickly smother our self-confidence and hope. After reading half a dozen such articles I felt like a total failure. They also presume that we all have bottomless pockets and can splurge on whatever the article is telling us to buy to guarantee that good nights sleep. I am keen not to add to such articles and in the interest of fairness will assume that pennies must be counted. After all, if money could solve sleep problems then the wealthy would be sleeping like lambs…..and they are not.
From my own experience after just a week of poor sleep:
– my concentration is shredded and it can take me significantly longer to accomplish tasks.
-my energy levels are diminished meaning I need more rests and breaks.
-my face in the bathroom mirror looks a good 10 years older.
-my mood is far from stable.
I am aware that a significant proportion of my students have endured long term sleep problems, but now I am hearing from more and more students that they have started having sleep difficulties since the pandemic hit in March 2020. Just as your lungs are the primary organ of breathing so your mind is the primary organ of sleep and your brain will keep you awake alert and ready to run if you don’t feel SAFE. The most primitive part of your brain reacts to any perceived threat to your safety by keeping you awake because being asleep or even drowsy leaves you vulnerable to attack. And so many people have been left feeling profoundly unsafe by this virus, the fear of getting sick, of becoming seriously ill, of dying, of losing loved ones. There is also fear about the future, financial problems, and job security. When you factor in that most of us we have had to acclimatise to a complete change of routine as well – wearing masks in public places, working from home, queuing to get in shops, home educating our kids, not being able to go shopping or to the pub or out for a meal, no wonder so many of us are awake in the middle of the night. Remember, the part of your brain that facilitates sleep is not the sophisticated part that can rationalise, it is the primitive instinctive part of you and you need to tune in to what it is trying to tell you.
So I have done lots of reading and lots of thinking, and, ironically lost some sleep while I worked through everything I discovered, and came to realise that this is a HUGE topic that I could never know enough about. I wanted to share it all with you in a series of articles and lesson plans all about SLEEP which is our theme for February 2021. Please bear in mind that I am no expert on sleep, nor do I aspire to be, but if the product of my research proves helpful to any of you then the time was well spent.
Over the next few weeks there will be several articles, looking at the science behind sleep, the Ayurvedic and Yogic perspective on sleep difficulties, as well as more Western practical ideas that are worth checking through if you are suffering from insomnia, either short or long term. There will be several lesson plans, including restorative floor based work, as well as more active practices focusing on the energetics of yoga and how this can improve sleep. I am working on a visualisation to help you prepare for bed, as well as pranayama (breath) practices that aid restful sleep and a guided Yoga Nidra called the 61 points that will come as an audio file that you can listen to in bed. These will all be on the Home Practice page and available to all of my Subscribers. For information on how to subscribe please visit the ‘Classes’ page on this website. This has turned out to be a huge chunk of work and it is taking me some time to get it all ready, but rest assured I am on the case, and hopefully we will all benefit from some more restful sleep soon…watch this space…..
Michelle a.k.a The Crazy Guinea Pig Lady