Sleep Guide – Perfect is the enemy of the good (even sleep experts don’t sleep well all the time)
Welcome to the second part of my no-nonsense sleepyhead blog series Sleep Guide – Perfect is the enemy of the good. Take advantage of everything I have learnt in 15 years of sleep medicine, research and around 10,000 patients with all sorts of sleep disorders. Educate yourself on sleep – the right way.
The first thing we need to understand is: What actually is a good sleeper versus a poor sleeper?
Sleep Guide – Let’s talk about Mike and Sally.
Mike has been reading about sleep a lot lately and really wants to be as healthy around his sleep as he can because the consequences of not doing so seem very scary. He has read about all the things he should be doing to sleep well. Mike forces himself to go to bed exactly the same time every night no matter how he is feeling. He no longer allows anything to get in the way of that including social activities. When he is having a bad night, he feels tense and anxious and lies in bed trying to ‘will’ himself to go back to sleep. He counts the hours and works out how much sleep he would get if he managed to fall asleep right now. He feels terrible in the morning and fears the consequences of not feeling alert as he should. He decides to cancel any activities that are not work-related because he feels he can’t cope. He takes himself to bed early the next night to compensate but finds the same pattern repeats itself, and then lies in at the weekends to allow his body to rest which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. He avoids caffeine completely and follows all the usual sleep tips and guidance. He feels very frustrated and alienated from his own body. He feels out of control and in a fog most of the time. Mike is wondering how is sleep issues got so much worse rather than better when he started doing something about it.
Mike not only worries about sleep, but he has put his life on hold for it. He won’t attend social engagements and he cancels activities that he usually does. He forces sleep on himself and yet he cant sleep. His fears and beliefs about what not sleeping can do to you have directly affected his behaviour, and it is his own behaviour that has made his sleep worse. That’s because moving away from your natural sleep routine to compensate for lost or poor quality sleep is exactly what not to do.
Meet Sally. Most of the time sally feels refreshed and her sleep opportunity (the part of her day she allocates for sleeping) is fairly regular, but she doesn’t let this stop her having the odd night out or late dinner or cheeky drinks with friends if she wants to, because that makes her happy. Sally does have the odd poor night’s sleep, and she will admit sometimes this can leave her feeling less refreshed than usual, but she doesn’t worry about why or what will happen and carries on with her day. These effects don’t last long. Every now and again Sally’s sleep needs change slightly, whether it be different seasons throughout the year to life events and physical ailments that can happen every now and again, but Sally’s sleep soon falls back on track. To Sally, her sleep quality feels fine most of the time.
Sally has a healthy relationship with her sleep.
Sleep Guide – Let go of perfect
Notice how Sally is not perfect. That’s because….you can’t control sleep. Or at least, you can’t control sleep to the level that we seem to want to. A good sleeper will never sleep well each night, and it would be impossible to sleep the exact same number of hours each night, and nor does your body want to do that. That’s because part of your sleep is trying to react to all the other variables in your life – too many to worry about, but enough to remain flexible when it comes to your sleep. Sometimes, you are just not gonna be tired. That’s fine. Sometimes you are going to be extra sleepy. We have to build up sleepiness in order to sleep and the only way to do that is to be awake for longer. Therefore, if your days are not the same each day, your sleep probably won’t be either. This is oversimplified of course, but just highlights an important issue- you can’t control everything. Of course, there are ways to maintain healthy sleep – we will get to that later. Before that, we need to get rid of all these bizarre ideologies and notions that we feel exist around our sleep. Perfect is the enemy of the good! Perfect doesn’t exist in sleep, but the more you strive for it the more anxious and stressed we become which yup you guessed it, causes the anxiety gremlins to come out, usually when you’re trying to get to sleep only to keep you up for longer! This is where you are well within your rights to say ‘stuff it’ I’m giving myself permission to not give a stuff about my sleep right now. I’m gonna do something else that I enjoy because I have extra wake time in my life and if there is anything that social media keeps forcing down our throats it’s to seize the day and not waste time.
Sleep Guide – Nobody sleeps perfectly all the time
I do not sleep well all the time. There I said it. I have been working as a Sleep Physiologist for 15 years diagnosing and treating and researching sleep disorders and the so-called ‘good’ sleepers and I have done my fair bit of qualifications and monotonous textbook and paper reading. I have had access to all the different types of insomniacs and they have been kind enough to let me in and share their experiences with me, and I have successfully treated them using evidence-based techniques and adapting them to actual people rather than reading from a script/textbook (never ever do this to an insomniac – don’t be so small-minded!). BUT I do not have the formula to sleep to perfection each night. Because it doesn’t exist. And don’t let anyone tell you differently. Your sleep across the life span is not some sort of linear process. It changes. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes your down, accept it, it’s normal. It’s the best thing you could ever do. Liberate yourself from the fear of not doing something perfectly every day. I mean think about it, that’s a lot of pressure to put on one bodily function. YES if every bodily function was perfect, we would be healthier, fitter and more resistant to disease. We just wouldn’t die! Brilliant! Think about this differently for a second – look at how good we are at sleeping compared to our ancestors who before the industrial revolution would sleep in all sorts of patterns (yes it is possible) and how different we are health-wise now (yes there are more illnesses out there, thanks to being able to stay alive longer to notice them – and we can attribute some of that to the way we do allocate part of our days to one consolidated-ish sleep). That’s not to say we can’t improve sleep – it’s just the obsessive and ritualistic not to mention ‘anecdotal’ advice out there is doing us a bit more harm than good right now and needs to be replaced with the good stuff.
Read on the next article in my no-nonsense sleepyhead blog series – the 8-hour lie, consistency and blame.