Sleepy tea, masturbation, and dense earplugs: Inside the lives of insomniacs

Lavender oil. Eating kiwis. Masturbation. Everyone has their own “hacks” when it comes to falling asleep in 2023; the days of counting sheep are long gone. Jennifer Aniston’s top tip for battling insomnia is to “sleep with my phone at least five feet away from me”, while Martha Stewart recommends focusing on your breathing. In her 1973 feminist novel Fear of Flying, author Erica Jong notes that, sometimes, the only way to overcome sleeplessness is by pretending you don’t care about nodding off. “Then sleep became piqued, like a rejected lover, and crept up to try to seduce you.”

In a world where human sleep patterns have increasingly been plunged into chaos, people are having to turn to ever more creative – and often bizarre – means of getting their 40 winks in. Today, the internet is littered with tips and tricks that promise a sound sleep, but not all of them are effective and none are foolproof. (Kiwis, by the way, contain serotonin and antioxidants, which is why it’s thought they might have sleep-promoting benefits.) The result is a society with a growing problem on its hands: persistent sleeplessness – otherwise known as insomnia.

Globally, it is estimated that around 10 per cent of adults meet the criteria for insomnia; the sleep disorder is characterised either by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep to such an extent that it disturbs your ability to function during the day.

Insomnia lies at the heart of the new Apple TV+ comedy series Still Up. The show follows Lisa (Antonia Thomas) and Danny (Craig Roberts), two best friends who stay up late talking to each other because they can’t sleep. Lit by the blue glow emanating from their electronic devices, Lisa and Danny form a deep connection over their nocturnal calls, with their friendship gradually drifting into something more. At one point, Lisa checks herself into a sleep clinic in London, telling Danny she’s willing to “try anything” at this point – a sentiment the sleepless know all too well.

The series was inspired by creator Natalie Walter’s own experience with insomnia, and her late-night Facebook chats with Steve Burge, her co-writer on Still Up. “As part of the research for [the show] we visited a sleep clinic, which was fascinating,” she tells me. “Some evolutionary biologists think the reason humans have different sleep patterns is that during our early history, a few members of the tribe would always be awake and vigilant during the night, and so could protect everyone else from predators. Not that I’d be much use fighting off a woolly mammoth.”

Just like depression or anxiety, insomnia can often be triggered by something. Whether it’s a life event as monumental as becoming a new parent, or something as commonplace as jet lag, there are any number of things that can prompt a bout of sleeplessness. The issue, explains sleep therapist Dr Lindsay Browning, is that insomnia can often remain long after the trigger has gone. “At this point, you’re no longer worried about the traumatic incident; you’re now worried about not being able to sleep.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Social media consultant and mother of two, Amy Fieldhouse-Downes, started suffering from insomnia after the birth of her second son in 2019. She believes the affliction was rooted in anxiety. “If you Google how to go to sleep, I’ve probably tried everything on there,” she says. “Going to bed earlier, going to bed later, meditations that would get cut off by an advert, lavender products, sleep cream, eye masks, Sominex sleep tablets. And I even used it as an excuse to have a few glasses of wine.” It wasn’t until she tried sleeping with specialised earplugs that she was finally able to get some rest.

Long-time insomniac and video producer Preshita says she has tried many tricks over the years – “from drinking chamomile tea to counting backwards from 1,000”. After much experimenting, she has found that taking a shower before bed and keeping her bedroom clutter-free were the most effective methods. “Someone recommended masturbating, and that was another thing that worked,” she adds.

‘Still Up’ follows Lisa (Antonia Thomas) and Danny (Craig Roberts) as best friends who stay up late talking to each other because they can’t sleep

(Courtesy of Apple)

Millions of people struggle with insomnia in the UK alone. Studies have found that women are 40 per cent more likely to be affected by insomnia than men. “This sex difference in insomnia emerges after puberty, suggesting that hormonal differences such as menstruation, pregnancy and menopause may be the cause of this increased risk in women,” Dr Browning says. The symptoms of insomnia can last a long time; a longitudinal study conducted in the UK found that 69 per cent of respondents affected by the sleep disorder at the start of the study still had insomnia 12 months later.

This may go to show how complex treating insomnia can be. Explaining the appeal of quick fixes, Dr Browning says, “In the short term you’re changing something, so [they] can often [work] like a placebo. If hunger is keeping you awake, eating before bed will help. If your mattress is uncomfortable, sleeping on the floor will help.” But the problem isn’t just that these methods don’t necessarily work – it’s that they could be used to exploit vulnerable insomniacs.

“I’m a sleep therapist, my doctorate is in insomnia and it’s very, very frustrating,” she says. “People who have insomnia are desperate. I treat patients who are suicidal, who have quit their jobs, whose lives are completely on hold because of their sleeping issues. And they’re vulnerable. My clients have spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on things that made no difference. If people are being mis-sold expensive things and they’re being preyed upon, that’s a huge problem.”

Rosie Davies-Smith, a PR consultant, says she has spent more than £600 on a variety of treatments, including a combination of doctor-prescribed and over-the-counter medications, teas, supplements, weighted blankets, and eye masks. “While supplements, exercise, and sleep hygiene provided some relief, the true breakthrough came from addressing the root causes of my insomnia through therapy,” she tells me.

Rosie Davies-Smith, a PR consultant, says she has spent more than £600 on a variety of treatments, including a combination of doctor-prescribed and over-the-counter medications

(Getty Images)

As with many other mental health disorders, therapy can often provide long-term relief from insomnia. The most effective of these therapies is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI),” says Dr Browning, describing it as a “complete cure” that a lot of people don’t know about. “Different from CBT for depression or CBT for anxiety, CBTI works by addressing the negative thoughts and worries that perpetuate insomnia.”

Other avenues of treatment are also proving increasingly fruitful. A new drug called Quviviq was just approved by the NHS last week. Dr Browning is optimistic about the “exciting” new medication, explaining that it acts in a very different way to other sleeping pills, which “knock you out” but cause people to develop a tolerance. “As much as CBTI is the gold standard across the world, there might be some people who need a bit of [medicinal] help as well, a bit like depression.”

In the meantime, Dr Browning says there’s no harm in trying the occasional Reddit recommendation – if it’s free. That might be an act of self-pleasure, narrating the plot of Pride and Prejudice in your head, or listening to shipping forecasts. FaceTiming your best friend into the early hours of the morning – like Lisa and Danny do in Still Up – probably isn’t encouraged, but it does make for a very good romcom.

‘Still Up’ is available for streaming on Apple TV+.

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