Are you sleeping well? It feels like a sarcastic question at the moment. Perhaps sleep feels impossible – and maybe that’s new for you, or maybe it’s been like that for a long while. There are certainly plenty of things to keep us awake. But, the pragmatic truth is we don’t help anything or anyone by staying up worrying. And being under-slept chips away at our ability to act the way we want to in waking hours. So, perhaps World Sleep Day (18 March 2022) is a useful prompt to put it back on the to-do list?

Although, sleep is mostly the business of the unconscious – not really the stuff of to-do lists. All we can do is carve out the time and lay the foundations. After that, we must cede control. Which is not to suggest that nothing is going on – the back shift has a lot to do. There’s a major clean up required, extensive repairs, and great volumes of data needing sorted and catalogued. The sleeping body is a hive of activity, none of which we actually need to know about. But which is quite fascinating if you are interested.

However, if you’ve lain awake counting every sheep in Scotland to no avail, we suggest you don’t read Why We Sleep!

Don’t read Why We Sleep

Well, maybe not never ever, but it’s worth being clear about when this book might help, and when it probably won’t. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker is a famous and much loved (although also contested) book. We don’t tend to recommend it (or other ‘why’ books) if you have insomnia or other ongoing sleep issues. Ironically, these types of books can end up adding to the list of things you lie awake worrying about. However, if you like to burn the candle at both ends, or you keep prioritising other things, it could be a good idea to take a look at it.

Do read Why We Sleep

World Sleep Day and books like Why We Sleep are an important antidote to a frenetic grind culture that considers sleep a waste of time and encourages the use of supplements and stimulants in order to make do without it. Matthew Walker makes a convincing case that time spent sleeping is time very well spent – that if any pill or ‘superfood’ had all the health benefits that sleep does, it would be all the rage.

It might feel hard to prioritise it when we are conscious of others suffering. It’s normal to feel guilt – to find it absurd and almost unbearable to carry on with the routines of daily life when we know others are in crisis. But we all need to be well fortified as we face long-term uncertainty and challenge. Letting go at the end of the day is the best we can do, in both senses: it’s our limit, and it’s also the best thing for us. And it’s a kindness to everyone who will cross our path tomorrow. You don’t need to justify it – just be glad to lay your head down.

What if you don’t have 8 hours to give to sleep?

You might be in a situation where you can’t carve out a solid 8 hours even though you want nothing more.

In this case, one option is to consider how you could rest more. This is as much about the mind as the body – thinking burns a huge amount of energy, and soothing a noisy inner monologue will help save your batteries. I will come back to this in another article, but will just plant the seed here: resting is powerfully restorative.

Help for insomnia

Many people who experience insomnia have tried any number of things to solve it. The project of trying to sort it out can feel as exhausting as the lack of sleep itself. There are, as you know, countless options. So here I will offer you just one, shop favourite: The Sleep Book by Dr Guy Meadows, sleep physiologist and co-founder of The Sleep School. Even if you have suffered with insomnia for years, and feel like you’ve tried everything, we commend this book to you. It offers a programme to follow, and, crucially, a way out of the spiralling anxiety that often accompanies a struggle with sleep.

Bedtime stories for grownups?

Now, I’m breaking my own heart here as much as anyone else’s – but it’s possible that reading in bed isn’t ideal for sleep. If your sleep is messed up, sleep experts will say you should use your bed only for sleeping. This creates a simple, strong association for your nervous system: bed = sleep. If you also work, eat, read, watch TV, go on your phone or play computer games in bed, you don’t get that association. Your body won’t necessarily power down, and the more rambunctious parts of your mind will likely take advantage of the menu of options available. One bit of good news: the sleep experts do allow sex in bed as well as sleep – they’re not so puritanical as all that.

All is not lost for reading either. Reading a book is a great option for winding down before bed (doom scrolling social media, less so). You might also find you get more from reading when you do it earlier in the evening. It might be better than falling asleep after two pages and waking up with the book on your face and no memory of the content.

If you’re up in the wee small hours, a book is good company. Maybe try hanging out with those who know how it is, like  Marina Benjamin, Bill Hayes or The School of Life .

And hey, if you love to read in bed and you sleep well, you carry on – I wouldn’t take that away from you for anything.

by Kate MacDougall, Centre Co-ordinator & Bibliotherapist