There are so many sleep myths that I actually had hard time choosing my ‘favourite’ three. When I started to study sleep I realized that I had false expectations in various ways. Increasing my understanding has led to more realistic expectations. This has been crucial for my healing and better sleep. You can find my top 10 myth list here if you wish to read beyond the top three listed below.
Worries about sleep is the biggest reason being awake! We are fixated to obsessively ‘calculate’ the hours when it’s more important to focus on quality. Occasionally we can survive well with just a few hours sleep – a good thing to remember in the middle of the night.
1. All the media scream about the must-have-8-hour-sleep every night. Is this a must?
Not necessarily. Sleep requirements vary by age and by personality. Also, it’s not just about quantity but also about quality. Sometimes 6-hour-sleep sleep is more refreshing and nurturing than 8-hour-sleep. Substitutes, like alcohol, worsen the quality of sleep (even small amounts). Some people only sleep 4-5 hours per night and are completely fine (Professor Jim Horne calls the first sleep cycle as core sleep. Optional sleep is the next 4-5 hour sleep cycle). Margaret Thatcher famously said: ‘sleep is for wimps’ and only slept a few hours each night. Some people prefer to sleep a bit less at night and to have a nap after lunch. Most people, even the very best sleepers, sleep occasionally badly. Furthermore, sleep is only one way of renewing our energy levels.
2. Common perception seems to be that we should get all sleep in one block at night – without awakenings. I wake up 1-2 times per night. Do I have a problem?
The current sleep norm really took root following the invention of the electric light bulb by Thomas Edison in 1879. In modern industrialised societies we are exposed to an artificial day that is extended by electric lightning and typically lasts for at least 16 hours, regardless of the season. We now pack all of our sleep into a single block of time during the remaining seven or eight nights of darkness. Researches agree that this pattern of sleeping is unusual and new in human history: until cheap light sleep was split into two or more separate episodes in each 24-hour period. In short, we can claim that it’s in our genes to wake up during the night. Most people actually wake between 10-15 times per night but without any recollection of this. More about segmented sleep in here.
Some sleep experts might tell to try to sleep your night sleep in one block, but as told above this is not equally natural for all of us. Some of us wake up few times during the night and this is very normal. It’s OK to read to get to sleep. But the key is to aim to drift back to sleep fast (dim light, focus on slow breathing, focus on body sensations, reading boring book). Getting angry and frustrated at night (because of not sleeping and worrying of not sleeping) is far more disruptive and unhelpful than reading a few pages. Tossing around more than 20 minutes is not helpful either. After 20 minutes of trying do something, calm your mind and breathing and try again. Keep on doing this until you fall asleep.
3. People who can’t sleep are depressed
Which comes first: depression or insomnia? The relationship of depression and insomnia is two-way and for this reason it’s hard to identify which was there first. Chronic sleep problems affect 50% to 80% of the patients in a typical psychiatric practice, compared with 10% to 18% of adults in the general population. Doctors have traditionally viewed insomnia and other sleep disorders as symptoms of depression and other mental health problems. However, the recent studies indicate that insomnia more often precedes depression than the other way round. New information shows that treating insomnia will help treat your depression. Furthermore, the relationship between insomnia and depression is far from simple. Most experts today agree that that insomnia and depression are two distinct but often overlapping disorders.
Check the rest of the top 10 myths in here. Have I forgotten an obvious one?