Struggling with insomnia – try napping

As Shakespeare might have said, if he’d thought of it before me,”Sleepeth maketh the maneth”, or rather “Sleepeth maketh the (enter appropriate gender here then add eth)”.

We’ve all heard the stories of politicians and geniuses (or is it genii?) who only slept for 4 hours a night and yet still managed to achieve regular feats of endurance and creativity that the rest of us could only dream of. But many of these stories are made up, or at least wildly exaggerated. The truth is that human beings need their sleep. If we don’t get it then we are not only storing up problems for ourselves in the future, but actually impairing our potential right now.

It’s not something we thought about when we were young. That’s partly because of the cavalier attitude we all had back then, but partly because sleep was so easy to come by. It’s only as you get a few years under your belt that the whole sleep thing turns into such a battle field.

I’ve had to learn to live with insomnia over the years. After I lost the final remnants of my vision and could no longer even rely on daylight and darkness to help regulate my body clock my ability to sleep at night has become something of a joke. Nevertheless I have gamely battled on, trying to go to bed at the right time, get my 7 hours, then whip up enough energy to get me through the rest of the day before the cycle starts again.

It’s taken me a while to admit failure. Even the fact that I live with constant whiplash from jerking my head upright as I denied to family and friends that I had dropped off on the sofa again, I wasn’t able to accept that I had a problem.

Then recently I read a book called “How to grow old: a middle-aged man moaning”, by the comedian John Bishop. He is a firm advocate of the afternoon nap, pointing out that many important historical figures were also famous for their naps. For example, Winston Churchill, a man well known for his vast capacity for work, swore by his afternoon snooze.

In one of those coincidences that you can’t help feel were meant to be, I also came across a different piece discussing the history of sleep. It claimed that our current sleep patterns – taking the whole thing in 1 block between 11pm and 7am the next morning – is actually a recent development. Until the Industrial Revolution it’s thought that most people took their sleep in 2 or more blocks. The practise is known as biphasic sleeping.

The article described several approaches, but they can be boiled down into the choice of when you take your first block of sleep, and for how long. Some prefer a short 20 minute nap after lunch, others suit something longer. Some prefer their sleep to be mainly concentrated in the evening with just a short nap, followed by a wakeful period late night and maybe into the early hours, rounded off by a second longer sleep to see them through to the next morning.

Well, on the basis that if it was good enough for Winston then it’s good enough for me, I decided to give the thing a go. I have started with the siesta approach, giving myself up to 90 minutes of potential nap time in the early afternoon. So far I have been delighted by the results, but I think I will also have a go at the early evening nap since I do enjoy being awake and alert during the midnight hours.

My experiment is hardly scientific, but it is important to change things up sometimes just to see how it goes. And while I can’t claim that my productivity has improved very much, it has done wonders for the whiplash.

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