Struggling to sleep: Turning off in a world that never stops

Society’s attitudes towards sleep seem contradictory: stay awake and you are damaging yourself; sleep and you are lazy. Regularly neglecting sleep leaves you more likely to catch a cold, put on weight, become depressed, suffer from high blood pressure, have an accident – and more, warn several articles. Being well rested makes you happier too. But you snooze; you lose. Those essays and reports will not write themselves. And when you do have some free time, sleeping does not seem like top of your list: there is always something you could be doing, with opening hours spanning more and more of the night and the worlds of Internet and television open all hours. Caffeine and sugar cover tiredness. While essential for your health, suddenly sleep seems incredibly boring and unproductive and cheatable. Society seems to want all the benefits of sleep, without wasting time actually sleeping.

We want to be either wide-awake or fast asleep, nowhere in between. We have scheduled bedtime, calculated the hours we will get before the alarm, shut our eyes and hope we will fall straight asleep. But it is not like turning a switch on and off. People are not machines. Thoughts fill heads and hearts beat. And sometimes we get stuck in the limbo between being awake and asleep. Like we have forgotten something so simple and natural as falling asleep. Something we just did from birth, like breathing, that thought only complicates.

I have never been great at sleeping at the best of times. But last exam term, things got worse than ever before. It started with being awoken several nights in a row by noisy neighbours but soon turned into insomnia. Studying Psychology, I knew how important sleep was, but that only made my lack of it more frustrating. I averaged around 4 hours sleep in chunks, a night but I would lie for the full 8 hours. Wasting time. Doing no work. But becoming more frustrated than rested. Getting to sleep got harder and harder, with each noise I could not control making my heart race. I would lie, wide-awake, watching the hours pass on the ceiling. And when I would eventually fall asleep, it would only be for a short time before something, in my hyper-alert state, would wake me up. Reality seemed like a nightmare and I would dream about not sleeping; it was as if the fabrics of dream and reality had been sewn together. I was exhausted.

Eventually I began to seek advice – from friends, strangers, the Internet. It was both reassuring and worrying that this problem seemed so common. More than anything, it surprised me. People do not tend to talk about sleep. Informed, I tried all the tips. My sleeping has improved, with mental effort and the help of various herbal remedies, but it is still not normal – if there ever is such a thing – yet. These collages, then, are a representation of a typical night of me, now, getting to sleep, aided by as many things as I need. (See below for a story-line.) We take so many things to keep us awake and help us sleep now that you would wonder how we ever managed without them. It seems we were powered by pills and supplements. Sleep is becoming increasingly medical and political and, if we keep cheating it, historical.


Collage storyline: 

“Sleep well.” “I’ll try,” you reply with a sigh. And, taking your last sip of chamomile tea with an herbal sleep tablet from Boots, you flick on the switch of your CD player and bedside lamp. Hanging like a limp sponge from your middle, you dangle your arms to the floor in front of the mirror. They brush the carpet lightly between breaths and the sounds of heavy rain falling. As you begin to lose the boundaries of your body you crawl into bed; you stuff plugs in your ears and cover your eyes with darkness.

RAIN lullaby3

Then you just lie there. Like you’re waiting for something to happen. For someone to take you into the dream-world. You’re drifting into sleepiness; you can feel it But it’s like jumping off the edge of a cliff into nothingness and you cant quite let yourself do it.

hold on_ waves

You try reciting poetry in your head, picturing forests and beaches and any other mind game you can think of. But thoughts keep interfering and you just lie there. The well-intentioned orders to “sleep well” scrape around your mind. If only sleep was something you could just order yourself to do. But the more you think about it, the harder it becomes.

sleep well_2no light

It’s been hours and you know because you’ve heard the clock chime once, twice. And you’re still waiting. You’re getting frustrated. You’re fed up with wasting time, of being tired. You’re so aware of yourself lying here, of the morning drawing nearer when you haven’t said goodbye to yesterday yet. Sleep has never seemed further away.


The melatonin tablets are your last option. They don’t always work and you know they’re not good for you but sometimes you’re just desperate. And with a glug and a sigh you begin to sink into black blankets. As if erased, your mind ceases to think. It’s like you don’t even exist any more. And you disappear into sleep. A cheat.

melatonin 3mg

And tomorrow you have to do it all again. Stay awake for a day and sleep for a night. Who would have thought something so natural as the sun rising and setting would become so complicated? In a world that never switches off, we’re becoming powered by pills.

half a cup of coffee, half a cup of camomile


© SOPHIE BUCK. Sophie Buck is a third year Psychological and Behavioural Sciences student at the University of Cambridge who enjoys making collages and other art in her free time. She feels that sleep – and the lack of it – is becoming a global issue in a world that just won’t turn off.

3 thoughts on “Struggling to sleep: Turning off in a world that never stops

  1. madammesnikta says:

    sophie, thank you for this expression of something I’ve long struggled with. The lying there waiting is such a frustrating experience. I can’t stand the anticipation for longer than 30 minutes without flicking the lamp on again to read, choosing a boring monotonous story from the sleepy time podcast (really very helpful), popping the melatonin, or softly playing a Spotify sleep playlist. These tricks sometimes help quickly; more usually I’m on round two of the sleep saga when, finally, something about the stillness of 4am allows me to drift away. x


  2. Kathrin says:

    I’m also studying at Cambridge and I too got severe insomnia about a year ago while living in noisy student accommodation. Half a year ago I managed to move into a really nice and quiet place, and although at first my insomnia got even worse (for other reasons), I’ve never been so grateful for living in a quiet place.
    Reading books (e.g. Colin Espie, Overcoming Insomnia and Sleep Problems; Gregg Jabobs, Say Goodnight to Insomnia; and Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep) and using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has made a huge difference to me. It can, if you prefer something more interactive (and don’t mind the higher costs), also be learned by e.g. signing up to Sleepio. This is a six week long online programme based on Espie’s book.
    I still haven’t completely recovered, but since (by means of self-help books) I started applying CBT, and especially sleep scheduling/sleep restriction therapy, my sleep has improved a lot. My average amount of sleep per night has gone up from 4 to 5 hours within a few weeks and it is constantly increasing. The last two nights I even slept for almost 6 hours, without difficulties of falling asleep or waking up even once! Most importantly, however, the nights when I sleep poorly have become fewer and much less distressing (which means that I might be unable to sleep for 1-2 hours rather than 4-6), also because I don’t try to fall asleep anymore, lying in bed for hours and hours. In fact, thanks to sleep scheduling I often fall asleep within 5 min and although I’m still often tired throughout the day I’m feeling and functioning much better. So I can really recommend CBT.
    Moreover, I realised how important, at least for me, getting up earlier and getting enough daylight is (by spending time outside or using a light box) – it really helps me fall asleep at night. Although things such as yoga, meditation, getting enough exercise and fresh air won’t cure insomnia, they make me feel (and sleep) much better.
    Finally, it also helps me to know that I have the sleeping pills that I got from my GP a few months ago. I’ve only ever used them a few times and they’re obviously no solution, but just knowing that I have them makes me more relaxed and therefore helps me sleep. I’ve also considered taking melatonin, but how it works, if at all, still seems to be poorly understood, and like sleeping pills it doesn’t solve the problem either.
    Everyone is different, of course, and what works for me might not work for you. But reading up on sleep and about other people’s experiences, and trying to solve my problem with sleep scheduling has been a very positive experience. There were times when I was really desperate, thinking that I would never get rid of my insomnia, but I’ve learnt so much over the last two months and I feel it’s getting better and better. Luckily most people seem to be able to recover! I hope that you (and everyone else suffering from insomnia) will find something that works for you. Please don’t lose hope and don’t give up trying to find a solution!


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