Ashley Davies: Mixed results in fighting insomnia

THERE’S a whole industry out there to help us relax and nod off when we need to – with mixed results, writes Ashley Davies.

Lying wide awake in the middle of the night can, and often does, happen to us all. Picture: Getty
Lying wide awake in the middle of the night can, and often does, happen to us all. Picture: Getty

It’s 3am and in a few hours you have to do the work of two men, and then again the day after that and the day after that. You’ll need to be sharp of brain and it would be preferable if you didn’t look like a Masterchef presenter who’s been living in his car for a month. “Come on, sleep, old buddy, this is important,” says the sensible part of your brain – the part with a mortgage, a realistic reading of the jobs market and how many hours there are in a week.

But there’s another part of your head that’s convinced staying awake and worrying about a lack of sleep is the winner’s option. It forces your eyes open like a Victorian doll and, if you let it, will have your fists solid and your toes clenched and will convince you that your bed is as comfortable as a burned-out bothy. It’ll encourage you to pore over every mistake you made that day and panic about what’s ahead.

Insomnia is a nasty wee git for so many reasons. The way it scuppers your ability to function to your full potential is bad enough, but it can have a corrosive impact on your physical and mental health. A lot of vital physical repair takes place during deep – or long-wave – sleep, and your brain uses REM time – when you’re dreaming – to sweep out the emotional flotsam that clutters up your emotional facilities and prevents you from bursting into tears during dog food adverts.

Johnnie Lewson's film of a waterfall on the River Bonet is an internet hit. Picture: Contributed

And it sure can get lonesome being awake when everyone you like is far away and peaceful in the land of nod. In addition, if you’re not getting the rest you need at night, and have an opportunity for a compensatory nap in the day, you often end up in a vicious cycle that can result in you becoming nocturnal. You end up feeling guilty and useless, which is not as fabulous as it sounds. Just ask the Lib Dems.

The anti-insomnia industry is big business – from pharmaceuticals and talking cures to herbal potions and compresses that you stick to the soles of your feet – and it’s growing to include smartphone apps that range from the irritating to the ingenious, with all sorts of complications in between.

I can’t claim to be a professional insomniac but on occasions I have presented as a gifted amateur. I’ve had a go with celebrity hypnotist CDs and they were creepier than having your hair stroked by Boris Johnson. I tried a special app that asks you to select specific sounds (such as a forests, city noises or a busy cocktail party, the last two raising perplexing questions about what people consider to be suitable nap environments) in order to influence the flavour of your dreams, but I had nightmares so terrifying and violent I wanted to staple my eyelids open like someone clearly did to poor Joan Rivers.

I’ve tried some of the apps that play supposedly natural sounds, such as thunder storms, rain forests and birdsong, but they all seem to be on a loop and it’s impossible not to tense up and count the seconds till the next sequence of unnatural thunder begins. Dated detective dramas on BBC Radio’s catch-up service almost hit the soporific spot (they have an even tone and the plots can be comfortingly dreary), but it’s too easy to be distracted by picturing the actors reading from their scripts in a funny-smelling studio).

Over the past few weeks, a new hero to insomniacs has emerged, all by delicious accident. Visual artist Johnnie Lewson from County Leitrim made a short film of a small waterfall on the River Bonet, his original intention being to bring a bit of nature into people’s lives. It’s very simple, beautiful and bucolic, and all you can hear is the gushing of water and bird song. Then it snowballed – I assume insomniacs have some kind of dark net where they share tips – but Lewson’s film has been viewed more than six million times by people all over the world.

It’s now being used as part of a sleep trial being conducted by a group of London universities and research programmes. People, presumably those without sensitive bladder issues, have been using an eight-hour version of it to zone out, and it’s even being used to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Also emerging as useful tools for people who get twitchy at night are online films for people who indulge in ASMR – autonomous sensory meridian response, which is basically unexpected sounds that make people feel good. They range from the noise of someone else’s hair being brushed to a person speaking softly, gently crinkling paper or even just quietly tapping a piece of plastic. Those who are susceptible to ASMR say they feel a pleasurable tingle in their scalp, neck or spine when they hear these sounds, and that the pleasure is purely non-sexual so they can’t be accused of being special-interest pervs.

Some sleep experts claim that one of the reasons that many of us struggle with sleep is down to the fact that not everybody has 24-hour sleep patterns and are thus forcing themselves into an unnatural routine. In the early 1970s, a French scientist called Michel Siffre spent six months living in a cave in order to understand how the circadian rhythm functions. He went to sleep whenever he felt like it and ended up with a 48-hour sleep cycle which involved him being awake naturally for 36 and asleep for 12. Anyone who lives with a small child, teenager or very old person will have seen first-hand that we all have different cycles during different life stages.

If you haven’t already tried it, I recommend the “4, 7, 8” breathing method. You exhale through your mouth, close it and inhale through your nose for four seconds. Hold your breath for seven seconds, exhale for eight then do the whole thing two or three more times. Everything slows down and it’s simple and effective. Or you could always go live in a cave – or become a student. They seem to have this sleeping business sorted.