After a year that’s turned life upside down, the huge increase in sleeplessness is completely normal, says psychologist Emma Kenny. And accepting this is the first step to a great night’s sleep.
If there is one thing I feel we can agree on, it is that the events of the past 12 months have been shocking for all of us. Since March 2020 life as we knew it has morphed into something barely recognisable. This pandemic has understandably affected us in many different ways. You may be trying to home educate your children while running your business from your kitchen, or struggling with the way the day seems to stretch forever during furlough. Some will be facing financial fears and job losses, but what connects each of us is that we are all dealing with some level of struggle. You have been told that the people you love may be taken from you; even going out for a coffee has become a challenging and, at times, illegal activity. A trip to the shops now feels different.
Whether or not you realise it, your brain will have become so overloaded with this ‘new normal’ that even when you think you are doing OK, the likelihood is that you have simply grown used to a state of not being OK at all.
In order to feel a sense of security and contentment, human beings require some basic needs to be met. These include spending time outdoors with nature, getting natural light on your skin, having time with your nearest and dearest so you feel a sense of belonging, and micro-interactions with other humans – for instance, a chat at the shop checkout. These, added to a nutritious diet and regular activity, form the basis of wellbeing. If you reflect on that list, you will see how many of these essential ingredients are potentially absent from your life. It also explains why, for many of you, the sleep pattern you once took for granted feels as if it has evaporated. It has long been accepted that sleep is an important aspect of what makes us human, which is why, having worked as a psychological therapist for over 20 years, one of the questions I ask new clients is to describe their sleep pattern. It often gives me a short cut to the way they may be feeling.
Everyone recognises that delicious feeling when you wake up fully rested after a glorious night’s slumber: you feel almost as though you have been on a mini-break somewhere peaceful. This is the reason why we fall asleep in the first place, so we can relax and unwind. Since lockdown began, more and more people have been reporting that their sleep pattern has become problematic, so much so that Google has seen a 60 per cent increase in searches relating to insomnia. Some of you say that, having never struggled with sleep, you are now spending hours tossing and turning. Many of you who are managing to initially fall asleep, find yourselves waking wide-eyed and full of nervous energy in the early hours of the morning. Even those of you who are sleeping are struggling to get out of bed in the morning – and when you finally make it from beneath your duvet, you still feel absolutely exhausted.
Wherever you fit on that spectrum, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone and, crucially, that you’re completely normal. It has been a really challenging time for all of us, and it is OK to admit that. When you find that nodding off has become more of a chore than a comfort, then this is an alarm call. Sleep isn’t just important for the body to rest and recuperate, it is also a chance for the brain to unconsciously work things through emotionally in a housekeeping role. When you fail to get a good night’s rest, your body can’t attend to these important restorative tasks, meaning you end up feeling like you are running on empty – which in many ways you are. Very often, as opposed to practising self-compassion and listening to what your body is telling you, you find yourself feeling guilty that you’re struggling, particularly if you are in a financially stable position or have a loving family. You compare yourself to people worse off and feel ashamed for not being grateful for the life you have. But that isn’t how our emotions work and by rejecting them, all you will do is increase your anxiety levels, meaning sleep is even harder to achieve.
You will face any pressures far more successfully when you have knocked your sleep back into shape. Instead of feeling powerless over your insomnia, this is actually an area of your life that you do have a level of control over and, when you get back in the driving seat where rest and recuperation is concerned, this will remind you that you can also apply similar strategies to other areas of your life. Yes, you may have to do a little work, and some things will work better than others, but you can master a good night’s sleep when you make a conscious effort to attend to your body’s physical, emotional and psychological needs.
Right now, each and every one of us needs to put that extra effort into looking after ourselves. Learn to listen to your body without judgment, and accept that you are entitled to your feelings – because that is the first step in processing them. A great starting point is right here. Over the following pages, you can digest all the tips, tricks and advice from people who know how to ensure you get the perfect night’s sleep. Because even when life isn’t going to plan, a great sleep can ensure you start each new day energised and empowered.