Maya Yadav has tossed and turned for much of her life. As a teenager, the television producer would struggle to fall asleep, a habit which has accompanied her into adulthood.

“I used to long for a pause button to quiet my mind,” laughed the 31-year-old.

Sleep seems like the most natural human function, and yet millions of people around the world struggle with it. A healthy sleep pattern is key to one’s waking health. It allows the body to replenish and is essential to the optimal function of the brain. What’s more, sleep has been known to prevent illness such as heart disease. Yet, getting enough rest is not as simple as dozing off.

“Based on research, enough sleep is somewhere between seven to nine hours. For some people six is okay, but for others ten is necessary,” said Dr Dale Rae who is the director of Sleep Science in Cape Town. “The duration is to a large extent genetically driven, with healthy sleep being that which is in time with your own body clock as a lark or night owl.”

A healthy sleep pattern

“When you sleep, you literally and physically let your guard down. Your brain is given space to think and if you have issues and worries and concerns that aren’t dealt with, they will come to the fore at night, and they will keep you awake with a ruminating brain,” she said.

This may explain why Yadav is perhaps most creative at night.

“It is also frustrating that so many of my creative ideas come to me when I’m trying to fall sleep. I’m then put in a position where I either forget the idea, or I get up to write it down and sleep evades me for another few hours” she said.

Working from home has made this problem all the more common. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only heightened our anxiety levels, but lockdown has seen many throw their body clocks out the window.

“People are working a lot from home and as a result of this, they tend to lose the usual daytime routines,” explained neurologist Dr Kevin Rosman of the Morningside Sleep Clinic in Johannesburg.

“Daytime and night-time routines are very important in maintaining good sleep patterns. When we work right up until bedtime, we do not give the brain a chance to ‘wind down,’ and this will frequently disturb sleep and may lead to insomnia,” he said.

Falling asleep vs staying asleep

For Ashleigh Elad, falling asleep is not the problem, but staying asleep is.

“I was waking up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and then I couldn’t go back to sleep. I would end up scrolling through social media on my cellphone for hours,” she said.

Elad’s doctor recommended that she start taking half a sleeping tablet known as Ivedal every night. It has worked, but also brought more unease.

“I thought this was the best thing ever! I loved the fact that you took a pill, fell asleep, and woke up in the morning. But if I’m taking a medication that’s forcing me to sleep, am I getting the same benefits and quality of sleep as if I was doing it naturally?” she asked.

Rae, the sleep specialist, says this kind of sleep is not restorative.

“Quality sleep needs to be consistent and consolidated, not broken up and fragmented,” she says. “You need to get into deep sleep stages for brain recovery. Having poor sleep quality, even with duration, is as effective as short sleep,” she said.

Sleep for emotional wellbeing

“We are far less emotionally regulated without good quality and quantity sleep. Without rest, our brains go into hyperactivity mode and don’t process triggers and emotions as well,” said Sarit Swisa, a clinical psychologist.

Vivid dreams have kept Janine Wessels from restful sleep.

“They exhaust me because when I wake up, I’m not sure what is real and what isn’t. I feel overwhelmed and I will often just need to sit and process them,” she said.

The 30-year-old says she still remember dreams that she had at six years old—venturing to different worlds, flying, breathing underwater, and being visited by her late stepfather.

“A lot of the dreams have very significant meanings and they make sense at the time. Possibly because I don’t deal with my trauma and it is very heavy on my mind, it manifests in my dreams,” said Wessels.

There is truth to this, according to Swisa: “Unconscious feelings are often free to emerge in dreams. Feelings don’t like to be repressed and they will find a way to express themselves. Focusing on the emotion of the dream and its resonance in your life can be a useful way of hearing what is needing to be processed.”

Vulnerability and paralysis

This sense of emotional vulnerability is also why we may struggle to fall asleep.

“Sleep is perhaps our most vulnerable state possible. On a psychological level, making ourselves this vulnerable requires that we feel enough safety and trust to let go. Worries and anxiety can trigger our fight or flight response, meaning one isn’t likely to fall asleep if their mind is saying that they are facing imminent danger,” said Swisa.

Feeling in danger whilst asleep is something which Cathy Banda, who works as a nanny, has experienced since she was 12 or 13 years old.

“When I am sleeping it feels like there is a presence in my room like a spirit. It feels like someone is pushing me down on my bed and trying to touch my hand. Sometimes I’ll hear a male voice,” she said.

Although there is no one there, the fear is so real that 34-year-old Banda refuses to sleep without some form of light.

This form of anxiety is often accompanied by sleep paralysis. According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service sleep paralysis “is when you cannot move or speak as you are waking up or falling asleep. It can be scary but it’s harmless and most people will only get it once or twice in their life.”

“I will hear people talking around me, I will hear the TV, but I won’t be able to move. I will feel this presence but I am unable to scream. It can last up to 10 minutes. It leaves me feeling tired and drained,” said Banda.

“It happens the most when it is dark. I usually sleep with my bathroom light on, but now with loadshedding I will try to keep myself awake until the electricity comes back on. I feel scared to go to sleep,” she said.

Banda’s solution is to take naps during her lunch break to make up for her sleep debt, but experts warn that napping could be more harmful, depending on the time of day that it is done.

“Napping at the end of the day is a very confusing signal to your body which likely thinks it is going to receive a full sleep,” said Rae. “Although napping is an important part of many cultures and some societies have included it in their routine, if you find that you cannot get through a day without napping, then I would suggest that there’s something up with your night-time sleep and that needs to be fixed.”

10 tips for better sleep. (