"Why am I so tired?": the existential cry of the modern age. Photo: Getty Images
I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Athens, where sleep was revered. After my parents separated when I was 11, my mother, my sister and I shared that one bedroom. But it was always understood that we should do everything in our power not to wake up anyone who was sleeping.
If I had to study after my younger sister went to bed, I would study in the kitchen so the light wouldn't wake her. My mother was adamant about the importance of sleep for our health, our happiness and our schoolwork.
But despite this auspicious beginning, as soon as I left home – first to study at Cambridge and then to live and work in London – I bought into the prevalent cultural norm of sleep deprivation as essential to achievement and success. FOMO (fear of missing out) became part of my life long before the acronym was invented (probably by sleep-deprived millennials).
"I was sleepwalking through my life": Arianna Huffington.
This new sleep-be-damned approach continued for years, until, as I wrote about in my book Thrive, I collapsed from sleep deprivation, exhaustion and burnout in April 2007.
I'd just returned home after taking my daughter Christina, then in high school, on a tour of prospective US universities. The ground rules we'd agreed on – or, more accurately, that my daughter demanded – were that during the days I would not be on my BlackBerry.
But that didn't mean I would stop working (sacrilege!). So each night, we'd eat dinner late and get back to the hotel exhausted. Then, in some sort of role reversal, Christina would do the responsible thing and go to sleep while I acted the part of the sneaky teenager and stayed up late. After she'd fallen asleep, I'd fire up the computers and the BlackBerrys, responding to all the "urgent" emails and generally attempting to squeeze a full day's work into what should have been my sleep time.
This would go on until about 3am, when I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. And after three or four hours of sleep, I'd be back up for the day shift. This way of working and living seemed to serve me well – until it didn't.
The only part of that trip I seem to remember clearly is the cold, rainy morning at Brown University, walking around in a daze as if it were finals week. About a third of the way into the tour, Christina leaned over to me and said, "I'm not going to apply here – how about we just drop out of the tour and go get coffee?" I felt like I'd just been given a get-out-of-jail-free card. Yes, yes! Where is the closest Starbucks? How quickly can we get there? Can't wait for my fourth infusion of caffeine of the day – just the pick-me-up I need to make it to the night shift.
So the university tour was over. But I didn't fly straight home. Instead, I flew first to Portland, Oregon, for a speaking engagement that, in my scheduling hubris, I'd said yes to, and then on to LA that night. After getting home very late, I was up again four hours later for a CNN interview. I have no idea why I said yes, but there is that level of tiredness where you don't actually even notice you're tired because you no longer remember how not being tired feels.
Like being drunk, being that tired not only causes you to make bad decisions, it also makes you unaware that you're in no state to be making decisions at all. I was sleepwalking through my life.
Of course, being Greek, I should have known that hubris always gets punished. Once I got to my office after the interview, my body just couldn't take it any more, and down I went, coming back to consciousness in a pool of blood.
And that's how I painfully but powerfully rediscovered what my mother, with no formal education, no background in health or science, knew instinctively all those years ago in Athens: no matter the constraints, whether a tiny, crowded apartment or a crowded work schedule, sleep is a fundamental human need that must be respected.
No matter who we are or where we are in the world and in our lives, we share a common need for sleep. Though this need has been a constant throughout human history, our relationship to sleep has gone through dramatic ups and downs. And right now that relationship is in crisis.
The evidence is all around us. For instance, do you know what happens if you type the words "why am I" into Google? Before you can type the next word, Google's autocomplete function -based on the most common searches -helpfully offers to finish your thought. The first suggestion: "why am I so tired?" The global zeitgeist perfectly captured in five words. The existential cry of the modern age.
Though we may not be getting much of it, we certainly talk (and post and tweet) about sleep a lot. Nearly 5000 apps come up when you search "sleep" in the Apple App Store, more than 15 million photos under #sleep on Instagram, another 14 million under #sleepy, and more than 24 million under #tired. A quick search for "sleep" on Google will bring up more than 800 million results.
My own relationship with sleep has certainly been through ups and downs. For years, in one of our up periods, I chronicled my dreams every morning, just after waking. In a small notebook I kept on my nightstand, I'd write as many details as I could remember before the day's demands intruded.
It was like an intimate penpal relationship, only with someone – an elusive, timeless, and deeper version of myself – I had the chance to be with every night. And the effects of this habit, even though it was confined to the morning, echoed throughout my day.
But then, as so often happens, circumstances changed. In this case it was the arrival of my first daughter. My relationship to sleep didn't end – it can't, after all – but we certainly hit a rough patch. Gone was the enchanting experience of waking up naturally after a full night's sleep. In its place was a new reality, where sleep was perpetually just out of reach.
Night-and-day transitions vanished, and sleep was something to be had only in tiny increments between other things – as if my entire diet was only what I was able to grab and scoff down on the way out the door. Sleep became an impediment, something to get past, a luxury I thought I could no longer afford.
With the birth of my second daughter, it got only worse. In my mind, getting enough sleep would mean taking something away from my children – time spent with them, or just time spent preparing everything for their next day. Of course, in reality what I was taking away from them was my ability to truly be with them.
Even after the immediate sleep demands of my children became less pressing, I never quite re-entered that Garden of Eden of pre-child sleep. As so many of us do, I created a life in which I thought I no longer needed much sleep.
And when my children stopped needing as much of my time, that space got filled with other things – columns and speeches and books that had to be written, and then a new baby, The Huffington Post. So that cycle of burnout and perpetual tiredness came to be my new normal – until my wake-up call.
If I was really going to make the sort of changes to my life I needed to, I was going to have to start with sleep. So I patiently set about repairing our strained relationship. And I'm happy to report that we are now solidly back together. But, as they say in recovery programs, it's one day (or night) at a time.
For me, going from sleep amateur to sleep pro meant trying a lot of things and seeing what worked. Here is a list
of things I've tried.
One image I like to use is that of a calm lake. Any thought, worry, or concern that comes up I think of as a stone dropping into the lake. There may be a ripple or two, but quickly, the lake returns to its smoothness and calm. As more thoughts or worries or fears come up, I let them drop like stones and let the lake return to its natural tranquillity.
Another technique that works for me is conscious breathing – using my breath to slow myself down and relax any tense areas in my body. As our breath flows in and out, our tensions gradually give way, as if our breath is massaging us from the inside out, releasing the stresses of the day we're still needlessly holding on
to. As we get ready for sleep, we can practise seeing ourselves not as a closed, contracted fist but as supple and relaxed as a sleeping baby.
One way we can use our breath to relax and put us on the path to sleep is to breathe while focusing on love, grace, peace or joy. Relax your eyes, relax your jaw, drop your shoulders, and feel yourself floating on a bed of air. Imagine yourself drifting on a raft down the Mississippi or floating on your back in a calm sea, trusting the gentle rocking of the waves to carry you somewhere safe.
It may seem morbid to some, but one thing that never fails to work for me when worry is keeping me from sleeping is to remember that at some point I'm going to die. I tried this for the first time after I read the commencement speech that Steve Jobs gave in 2005. "Almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important," he said. "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart." And there is certainly no reason not to fall peacefully asleep; if all these earthly worries eventually "just fall away", there's no reason you can't let them fall away each night.
If death is too heavy a sleep aid, a much less fraught tool is to find a sleep talisman, an object that sends a clear signal to both your body and your mind that it is time to slooooow down. I have two Gordon Parks photographs in my bedroom that help bring me a sense of calm. One is of a little boy lying in the grass with his eyes closed and a June bug resting on his forehead, the other
is of a deep forest with a mother and child walking in the distance. Another photograph in my bedroom, this one
by Jeffrey Conley, is of a single figure standing in front of the endless ocean. It helps me put the problems of the day I'm leaving behind into perspective.
Edited extract from The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington (WH Allen), out April 18.