Insomnia in Academia

I can speak with authority on the topic of insomnia. I’ve suffered from poor quality sleep for twenty years now, which, perhaps not coincidentally, overlaps with my time in grad school and academia. Sometimes it’s better and sometimes it’s worse, but it’s an ever-present threat I face every night.

My problem is not so much falling asleep, but staying asleep. I can usually nod off within an hour, but it’s a rare occasion that I sleep through the night. Some people wake up and can fairly quickly fall back asleep again. When I’m up, I’m often up for hours.

I’ve tried all the usual suspects to cure my sleep problems: benzos, antihistamines, meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, autogenic training. They deliver some short-term relief, but nothing seems to “stick,” as it were.

Paradoxically, the more you need sleep, the more anxious you become about sleep, the less sleep you actually get. It’s a downward spiral that is hard to break. Lying awake in the darkness, you just keep thinking to yourself, over and over, “I shouldn’t be awake. I should be sleeping right now.” Ironically, it’s only when you give up caring about sleep that it comes most easily to you.

In fact, sleeping through the night is not even natural, evolutionarily speaking. Through most of human history, there was no expectation of a nine-hour, uninterrupted sleep. In Victorian times, people would go to bed around sundown, sleep for a few hours, wake in the middle of the night to do chores or socialize with neighbors, and then have a second round of sleep. Realizing that sleep is meant to be broken helps me cope with the insomnia.

Academics are especially prone to sleep problems. We tend to be predisposed toward neuroticism and, unlike a builder or a plumber, we can do our work (“thinking”) in bed. I recommend that every academic leave a notepad and a pen on your bedside stand. That way, when you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, you can jot it down and forget about it.

Academics are especially prone to sleep problems. We tend to be predisposed toward neuroticism and, unlike a builder or a plumber, we can do our work (“thinking”) in bed.

For me, there is little more infuriating than individuals who can easily get a good night’s sleep, but choose not to. Most insomniacs would sell their soul to get a good night’s sleep, while others intentionally over-working themselves.

If you, like me, struggle to sleep, here are a few resources that might help you.

This website provides some calming background noise, but watch out for ads. They can wake you up suddenly.

This website provides a full body visualization, narrated by Jon Kabat-Zinn. You can do it before you hit the sack. Again, watch out for the damn ads.

This website provides a short (7 minute) autogenic training exercise. It’s a bit like self-hypnosis. I find it quite helpful. Please note that autogenic training is not recommended for people with severe mental problems and/or psychosis.

I hope this reflection on insomnia in academia was useful and I wish you a good night’s sleep. If you’re reading this in the middle of the night, why not leave a comment below? I’ll probably respond right away.

Prof. Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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