We have come to think of sleep deprivation as normal even though sleep scientists have now documented its adverse effects, including early death and disease. Millions aren’t sleeping well or enough. The Center for Disease Control recently declared sleep deprivation a public health epidemic. Even the leading sleep evangelist, neuroscientist Matthew Walker claimed he’s not getting converts fast enough. In talking about his book Why We Sleep (2017) in a recent NPR Fresh Air interview, he said,
“I think people really need to start to become more aware of the science of sleep. And I think that, in part that is why people like me [sleep scientists] have failed. We’ve not done a good job at communicating the science and the impact of insufficient sleep to the people.”
On so many levels the culture that we live is in sleep adverse, so it’s not surprising that the findings of sleep researchers have not commanded more attention. People complain about a lack of sleep, falling back on cultural myths, such as giving up sleep as a necessary sacrifice for the demands of work and love. Or they simply must work to survive and have little time to sleep. As Walker said in the same interview, “An under-slept state … [has] become [the] new natural baseline.”
It’s time for others to step up to the plate and help people understand the importance of sleep for their well-being. Arianna Huffington wrote The Sleep Revolution (2016) after she collapsed in her office; the book is a call to action on the part of employers especially. As an educational psychologist with an interest in narrative psychology, I have, too, taken up Walker’s challenge to speak to people about the adverse effects of sleep deprivation.
I didn’t start out as a sleep educator or advocate; it’s taken me time.
The book project that led me to taking such a public stance originated when I was teaching a course on narrative psychology. It dawned on me that I could analyze the stories that I told myself when I woke in the middle of the night. You know such stories: “I’ll never get back to sleep, so tomorrow is ruined.” They produce anxiety and negative self-judgments. Since one of the main tenets of narrative psychology is that stories shape our behaviors and even the possibilities for new behaviors, I began to replace the stories of desperation and woe with alternate, more soothing stories, which frequently led me back to sleep. When a friend asked for one of the stories, I wrote it up and I kept on writing them until I had Stories for Getting Back to Sleep.
As I was accumulating stories, I read further into the literature on sleep and realized that I was one among many strugglers. People peppered me with questions when I told them about the book; then they shared their experiences. So the gentle hand of sleep kept tapping on my educator’s shoulder and with each new study and discussion, I found myself turning, wanting more research and more sleep, eager to share what I have learned.
Sleep scientists have now shown that cognitive behavior therapy is as effective as sleep medication and cheaper, with no side effects. Sleep stories, I realized, could make a difference not only in my life but also in others’. And insomniacs are beginning to pay attention. CALM is one of the most popular subscription apps used by those with sleep problems; it is a collection of fictional stories that help people go to sleep. Also widely used, the Sleep with Me podcast does not offer conventional stories; rather listeners hear Drew Ackerman’s “nonsensical meanderings” through topics that are only loosely joined together.
Like CALM and Sleep with Me, Stories for Getting Back to Sleep is one of the cognitive behavior therapy approaches designed to put sleep back in the hands of sleepers themselves. I love cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) as much as I love sleep. It awakens the imagination. Other approaches, such as hectoring the public with messages and/or appealing through questionable, if not false claims about remedies, rely on obedience or seduction. CBT is invitational; it welcomes sleepers to imagine other ways of handling sleeplessness based in their own capabilities. Also trained therapists can be very useful as guides when trying out CBT strategies.
Experimenting with CBT strategies is critical for success. For example, you can use Stories for Getting Back to Sleep as a workbook, modifying the stories so that they fit your experiences of being lulled to sleep or into restfulness. Or they might serve as models to help you create even more effective ones based on your circumstances. Even better, if you learn them, you need not turn on a light in the middle of the night because you will have the stories safely tucked in memory, like movies ready to play. You can combine them with other CBT strategies, such as listening to relaxing music. The key is to explore and create, to keep moving toward health and wellbeing, shortening the miles you go before you sleep.
All proceeds from Stories for Getting Back to Sleep go to the nonprofit Tostan (Tostan.org). You can increase your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of communities participating in this amazing human rights based nonformal educational program across West Africa.