As the digital age unfolds, insomnia has become one of the most prevalent health issues in modern society, with an estimated 30% of the global population suffering at least occasionally from it. What is odd is that a disorder that is by nature so personal has become commonplace: whether it is financial anxieties, strained relationships, or existential brooding keeping people up at night, it is the stuff of private and intimate thoughts that prevents the onset of sleep. Yet now more than ever, adequate rest is necessary to alleviate the mental saturation of modern life. The pandemic scale of insomnia points towards a bigger societal problem that deserves our attention if we wish to be rid of that nagging sense that everyone, yourself included, is constantly running on reserve battery power. The featured artwork is a series by Lauren Martin-Janko, an architecture student living in Vienna, inspired by her experience as an insomniac.
Insomnia is most commonly classified by the duration of its symptoms – transient (less than a week), short-term (1-3 weeks) and chronic (more than 3 weeks), which is estimated to affect a staggering 10% of the population, and twice as many women than men. Few people seek out professional help and remain unaware of the behavioral (and in some cases medicinal) options available to them. Untreated transient and short-term insomnia, which often emerge during the teenage years, has frequently been seen to develop into chronic insomnia later on.
Other than scientific speculations about a hereditary component to insomnia, our own life choices and immediate environment are the cause of our inability to get the adequate sleep. Sometimes, all it takes are small changes like opening a window, buying better curtains or becoming accustomed to wearing earplugs. However, the cause is often rooted in lifestyle habits. Digestive problems have been shown to have a surprisingly large impact on sleep, because the digestive organs contain more seratonin and melatonin (the hormones that control the length and quality of sleep) than the brain. The flurry of activity felt in the gut in moments of both anxiety and giddiness substantiates the ancient Greek belief that it is where we experience emotions. What we take to be angst is often common indigestion, and a healthier diet can go a long way in solving sleep disorders. The combined action of a poor diet with the systematic culling of any physical effort from modern life suitably explains the incidence of insomnia in white-collar workers.
Historically entrenched sleeping rituals also undoubtedly play a role in the ubiquity of insomnia, particularly in the Western world. The expectation that committed couples should sleep in the same bed could be a major factor. One study monitored couples over several nights, during which they slept in the same bed for half the night, and were given individual rooms the other half. Although the couples claimed they had slept better together, the electrodes wired to their brains revealed they had spent longer in deep sleep when apart. Sleeping is a solitary activity, and the notion that couples are expected to prove their devotion to each other by sharing a bed, even when their sleeping habits are clearly incompatible, seems somewhat anachronistic. Separate beds, or even rooms, should not be perceived as an option reserved for older, sexually redundant couples, but for anyone who feels their partner is interfering with their sleep.
Another cultural premise is that sleep is best obtained in a single block, and should happen during the night. This assumption is a vestige of rural society, and more recently the industrial workday, which rigidly placed the labour schedule between sunrise and nightfall. But with an increasing number of people taking on an array of different jobs to survive in the current economic climate, many performable online at any hour of the day, it is perhaps also time to reconsider sleep as a unitary block separating our days. Polyphasic sleep offers alternative, frightfully efficient patterns that are worth serious consideration for dissatisfied sleepers with flexible schedules. Science and common sense have also proven that everyone has their own internal clock, called ‘chronotype‘. Either you are a lark or an owl: the feeling of operating at varying energy levels during the day is inherent to each person. The myth that late risers are lazy, and the result that most people sleep between midnight and seven to avoid ‘social jet lag’, could be another major invisible cause of insomnia, which has no place in a digital world that never sleeps.
Modern society attributes little value to sleep, because it is not very compatible with profit and efficiency. This negative conception of sleep partly explains the lack of discourse around insomnia, despite the breakthroughs science has made in understanding sleep in the last few decades. Insomnia is suffering the same tragic fate as every other unresolved psychological disorder: to be hastily papered over with medication. But even though pharmaceutical companies are coming up with increasingly effective pills, such as Suvorexant which is set to be commercialised by late 2013, we have absolutely no idea of the long-term effects and habit-forming potential of these drugs. Natural sedatives such as melatonin are readily available, but turning to the harder stuff is increasingly viewed as acceptable, and 10 million Americans are already on prescription sleeping pills. Only time will tell the price to pay for taking the easy way out.
Instead, the insomniac should aim to cultivate good ‘sleep hygiene’, which requires an honest diagnoses of bad habits and strong self-discipline. The most helpful advice, in my experience, has been to dim lights and shut off any screens half an hour prior to sleep, which tricks the brain into releasing hormones that facilitate its onset. Or, like our featured artist, you can use the time for creative projects.
By Mischa Snaije
Artwork by Lauren Martin-Janko. Find more of her work here.