A recent slew of studies and articles has us questioning whether we’re getting enough sleep—or even the right kind of sleep. Balancing work, family and a social life can make getting decent sleep hard. Are we thinking too much, or too little, about our sleeping habits?
Are we all obsessed with sleep?
The Royal Society of Open Science recently conducted an experimental psychological study, finding the more you sleep, the more strangers are likely to find you “socially and facially attractive”.
Taking photographs of study participants after an ordinary night’s sleep and after being deprived of sleep over two days then showing these photographs to strangers, the study found participants who had more sleep, were more likely to be found attractive, healthy and trustworthy.
“Recent findings show that acute sleep deprivation and looking tired,” the study stated, “are related to decreased attractiveness and health.” A little harsh? Perhaps.
Another recent study at the Washington University in St, Louis found poor quality sleep has links to Alzheimer's. The research institute Rand Europe discovered less sleep is linked to a lower pay packet.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle newsletter Goop endorsed “clean sleeping”, calling it the “biggest health trend of 2017”. There seems to be a recent preoccupation with whether we are getting enough sleep, or indeed if we are getting the right kind of sleep.
This fixation on sleep seems a little counterproductive and eclipsing of the real world obligations and responsibilities that stop us from sleeping. Are we developing a disordered relationship with sleep?
Considering the impact of sleep
Jolene Clarke in an Accounts Assistant based in Nottingham and has had a tricky relationship with sleep having experienced night terrors ever since she was very young.
Night terrors are an extreme form of nightmare, in which the dreamer may scream and thrash out while experiencing the terrors. In Clarke’s case, this manifests as Restless Leg Syndrome, a strong urge to move one’s legs and an unpleasant feeling in them if when left still. “I’m lucky to get four hours of deep sleep a night,” she tells me, “though ideally, I would say I need a good seven hours to feel good the following day”.
Her night terrors have impacted upon her ability to concentrate the next day, and as a result, Clarke sees sleep as a very precious commodity. “I have a blackout blind to sleep more comfortably and the room has to be a very cool temperature.” She believes we do not think about the impact of poor sleep enough.
“I’m lucky to get four hours of deep sleep a night"
“The reality of people’s sleep patterns, especially those with long commutes, to and from work, can cause a lot of pressure and worry” she believes. Clarke feels there is not enough of a conversation around how to get decent sleep and what that might look like.
“More should be done to encourage better sleep and better sleeping patterns.”
Read more: How sleep changes as you age
Can poor sleep affect our lives?
Hayley Flynn is a place-writer and researcher based in Manchester. Flynn suffers from a hereditary sleep problem, and also co-sleeps with her 14-month-old baby. Flynn’s frequent insomnia culminates in what she calls a “hallucinogenic form of sleep paralysis”. She describes these episodes as like experiencing a waking nightmare: feeling paralysed and lucid during the hallucination.
“I can breathe my way out,” Flynn tells me, “but the terror of it stays with me for a long time after. As a result, I am very anxious about sleep.”
Co-sleeping with a baby has somewhat improved Flynn’s relationship with sleep. The fragmented sleep pattern of her child, as he wakes for feeds, means Flynn knows when experiencing the paralysis, she is likely to be woken up sooner or later. The sleep routine she has instigated, she has found, works as well for her as it does her baby.
"I’ve not been able to hold down an office job because of extreme tiredness"
“I do a sleep routine, playing wave noises, a red light, a set bedtime… yet once she’s asleep and I’ve nearly nodded off several times I get up to have the evening to myself. But by the time I get to bed I’m no longer sleepy.”
Flynn thinks we do have unrealistic expectations of sleep; citing a night of uninterrupted sleep as something of a modern construct. “It feels like a slightly unnatural pressure.”
She does, however, worry about the implications of her problems with sleep. “I’ve not been able to hold down an office job because of extreme tiredness,” she tells me. “My problems do worry me, as it doesn’t feel normal to say I’m too tired to work a normal job.”
Sleep is individual
Andrew Bagshaw is a reader in Imaging Neuroscience at the University of Birmingham, with an interest in how sleep affects the brain. Bagshaw has noticed an increase in attention being paid to sleep, particularly a rise in people quantifying their sleep via sleep apps.
Bagshaw sees this as an extension of a tendency to record our eating habits and exercise, though isn’t sure it has the same tentative benefits. “People feel if they quantify their sleep they will get more of it,” he tells me. “But I’m not sure this works.”
Bagshaw believes there is a general view that we’re getting less sleep than we need; that there is a pervasive sense this is something we should be worried about. And there are proven negative health impacts from not getting enough sleep, such as obesity and impaired cognitive function. As a result of this, we are seeing a sort of performance anxiety. “And there is nothing more detrimental to sleep,” Bagshaw states, “than trying to sleep.”
Bagshaw believes it is important to understand that everyone has different sleep requirements and that this is informed by a combination of genetics and external influences. What might work for one person may not work for another and so setting ourselves prescriptive expectations is not helpful.
What is helpful, he believes, is adhering to a good sleep routine. Not drinking caffeinated drinks for a few hours ahead of your bedtime, ensuring your room is kept dark so you’re not woken by sunrise, abstaining from electronic devices for an hour before you go to sleep, and only going to sleep when you’re actually tired.
“If you’re trying to sleep better, Bagshaw concludes, “then it’s best not to think about sleep too much. I don’t think that helps.”
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