My usual remedy for sleepless nights tend to go something like this: Netflix marathons, running to the 24-hour convenience store downstairs for Doritos, video calls with friends in different time zones. (None of these solutions are recommended, by the way.) I have realised that in the long-term, I was going to have to put my big girl pants on and tackle my less-than-desirable nocturnal habits in order to save me from the nagging tiredness, growing frustration and occasional midnight Dorito overdose.
Try typing in “sleeping disorders” into Google and you’ll find various studies arriving at the same conclusion: that it is sleep quality rather than sleep duration that has the biggest impact on our health. When you think about it, the theory makes sense. “Quality over quantity” is a sacred rule we could apply to many different areas of life. One more thing you’ll encounter while browsing the depths of the Internet is an overwhelming deluge of advice. Millions of articles, in fact. From “don’t exercise before bedtime” (how probable is it I will squeeze in my work out before the morning rush hours?) to “don’t drink alcohol before sleep” (waving goodbye to my evening Prosecco feasts), they seemed too general and dismissive of my individual body clock, habits and lifestyle.
Raise your hand if the last thing you do before bed is check your phone. Anyone? (I’m guessing almost everyone). Instead of clearing our heads, we end the day with a quick (or not so quick) scroll through Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. What happens if we replace these apps, which tend to make so many of us feel more anxious, with mindful technologies that could help us get better sleep? I decided to trial five different apps to see if the world of tech can, after all, put my mind to rest.
To make the entire experiment more efficient, I equip my phone with Twilight, a light filter which adapts the screen to the time of the day and filters the flux of blue light emitted by my device. This blue light prevents our photoreceptors – called melanopsin – from sending messages of “tiredness” to our brain. The app claims to help me gain one hour of sleep each night. Did it it work? Who knows, but it’s free and simple step that I am more than willing to take. Thanks to geolocation, Twilight turned my phone screen red after sunset, which made me less willing to scroll my Instagram at night; when it comes to instilling better habits, these kinds of daily cues are essential. But mostly, it turns out all these staged travel pics that have always inspired my wanderlust do not look so good in red.
LEARNING SLEEP CYCLES
Next up, I install Sleeptracker, which when left under your pillow, creates a sleep diary of sorts. With its 30 different sounds, it stands a chance to replace my old alarm clock for good. Look, it might not provide a cure for your sleeping problems but it does gives you a detailed overview of each night, taking into consideration the duration of respective sleeping phases.
I was surprised to learn that light sleep took from 67% to 96% of my entire sleep time. On top of that, I observed how the moon phases impact upon my rest within the first quarter cycle, decreasing my average sleep to 73% compared to 84% during the full moon period. If you decide to unlock the full version of the app, you can get even more detailed statistics but the trial alone was pretty insightful. Discovering my own sleeping pattern helped me understand the complexity of the phenomenon and even made me order Arianna Huffington’s book on the sleep revolution (yes, it’s coming) the publishers claim will transform my life – one night at a time.
It’s been a few days since I took up my challenge but I was still struggling to find a way to improve the quality of my sleep. You are probably familiar with those bitter moments of anxiety before bedtime when you start reminiscing on your day and all the things you should have done bingeing that sixth consecutive episode of “Seinfeld”. Alternatively, you try to predict the future and the impossibility of this task makes your heart pound. I feel you. That’s why the next on my list was Headspace – a meditation app I was hoping could help me get rid of the manic tangle of thoughts that seem to rush in as soon as I try to fall asleep.
Faced with the very first question – What brings you to Headspace? – “sleeping better” and “my editor” came to mind. A smiley blue face promises to teach me how to let go of mental busy-ness and once again, I’m astounded by the empathy of the digital world. “It’s normal for your thoughts to wander,” says Headspace and I nod approvingly. At least there’s one app out there that will make me feel a little better about myself.
I meditate right before sleep for three minutes for five consecutive days. The effects are immediate. I truly unwind and my body feels lighter. During short sessions, the coach gives you step-by-step instructions and leaves you alone for a moment of semi-conscious delight. At times, I felt as if I was drifting on a marshmallow (Yes, a marshmallow!) and loved the experience so much I caught myself meditating on the train and at work (don’t worry, I had headphones in). Now, I’ve extended my sessions to five minutes which felt like joining a Premiere Yogi League. No need to add, for now, but I wholeheartedly recommend Headspace to all restless souls trying to get their share of inner peace.
Quietening myself down before sleep proved successful but I was lured to investigate whether noises could have a similar effect. White noises, to be precise. Science claims that these kinds of monotonous sound signals, droning on with constant amplitudes, are exactly what our brain needs for a good night’s rest. White Noise, in particular, offers a variety of different soundtracks to choose from. There is an Amazonian jungle, blowing wind, fire (or perhaps it’s romantic rain onto the rooftop?) and I cannot resist but think of school camps. It gets even weirder with air conditioning, water sprinklers, frogs at night and a particularly charming clothes dryer soundscape that I unsurprisingly find more irritating than calming. So I go for classic rain track and fall asleep within minutes only to wake up abruptly in the middle of the night, worried that the apparent heavy rainfall might drown my cat. White Noise played a pretty good joke on me and I’m not sure if I’d repeat the experiment.
YOUR VERY OWN SLEEP DJ
It’s time to move onto another soundsleeping app – Sync project – which examines structural properties of music and their impact on biometrics. Science, anyone? To try it, you simply need to choose if you want to unwind before sleep (20 minutes) or anytime (5 minutes) and define how relaxed do you feel at this particular moment. My mildly relaxed frame of mind matches me with an ambient track by Marconi Union that reminds me of the soundtrack of Lost in Translation. Considering Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece is one of my favourite movies of all times, it’s a dream track to end the day with. The good thing about Sync project is that the music gradually fades away. That means no unexpected wake-up calls from faux rain drops.
The next day I wake up refreshed and serene. I did not dream of Tokyo or Bill Murray and I must say the dreamless night was very refreshing. My experiment ends here and though I think none of these apps can offer a permanent solution to insomnia, they do build an understanding of one’s own sleeping pattern. The apps pushed me to learn new scientific terms, read research papers and sparked my interest in the unexplored terrains of the subconscious. In a world where we’re trying to control, plan and predict every little aspect of our lives, perhaps there is something in relearning the absolute basics in order to regain balance. In this sense, the experiment was the best wake-up call I’ve ever received.
Words, Marta Knas.