HEY BRAIN, TAKE A BREAK

~ Posted by Anthony Gardner, April 7th 2014

A few months ago I reported on a talk about sleep at the How To Academy in London which suggested four basic rules. The subject obviously struck a chordor perhaps a midnight chimewith readers, for it proved to be one of the most popular articles on the website in 2013. But the organisers, John Gordon and Frances Wilson, felt that speaker had "failed to engage" with the bleary-eyed attendees by not asking us about our own insomnia, so we were all recently invited back to hear another expert, Dr Guy Meadows, head of the Sleep School.

Young and energetic, Meadows was not only different in style from his predecessor, butdisconcertinglyoffered opposing advice. Rules such as “the bedroom is for sleep and sex and nothing else” should not, in his view, be slavishly followed. (“Restrictions cause resentment and are counter-productive.”) Nor did he believe that getting up and pottering in the middle of the night was a good idea: “Eventually it becomes a habit.”

Waking in the early hours, he told us, is something everyone does, but most people go instantly back to sleep. With insomniacs it is a chance for the brain“a 24-hour thinking machine that sees wakefulness as Christmas"to start racing; and the more you struggle against it, the worse it gets. The answer is not to seek refuge in blacked-out rooms or alcohol (one of his patients used to line up six shot glasses of vodka beside her bed), but to persuade the brain to take a break.

One exercise he suggested was to focus on a single sense by asking yourself, say, “What can I smell?”; if a thought tries to interrupt, banish it by saying, “Thought!” Eventually you should be able to distance yourself from your thinking mind enough to say, “Thank you, but goodbye.”

A more challenging suggestion was to face your worries straight on by listing them in your head. In this way, Meadows argued, they lose the power to cause “hyper-arousal” in the brain by suddenly jumping out at you.

“Live a valued life” was his final directive: “A brain which is happy and contented is a sleepy brain, so do some small thing every day that brings you closer to what’s important to you.”

Sadly, my brain is taking time to come to heel. But Guy Meadows is a man who inspires confidence, so I have downloaded his book onto my Kindle. In a perfect world it would join my eight books for insomniacs and soothe me to sleep.

Anthony Gardner is a novelist and editor of the Royal Society of Literature magazine, RSL

Image The Granger Collection