Millennial Mind

Sleepless in Singapore: Battling insomnia in my 30s

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted sleep for many of us. But my insomnia is also a psychological struggle for control.

Once upon a time, I could sleep like a baby, even long after outgrowing my infancy.

As a young adult in my roaring 20s, I could easily clock a solid 12 hours in bed - and I don't mean Netflixing and other peripheral activities, like hitting the snooze button.

These days, however, sleeping uninterrupted for that long feels like a distant dream for 32-year-old me.

Heck, I'd be lucky to clock even as little as five hours.

It's not unusual for me to hit the sack at midnight, only to aimlessly scroll through Instagram and TikTok for hours until my phone crash lands on my chest with an unceremonious thud.

A thud which, if I'm lucky again, triggers a yawn that segues into slumber.

More often though, I end up burrowing into the YouTube rabbit hole - binging on my favourite Kill Bill scenes and watching Gordon Ramsay spit out yet another lousy crab cake.

I can't quite pinpoint when, but it was some time last year that falling and staying asleep started becoming a problem for me.

Every other day, I find myself falling asleep way later than I care to admit. In the morning, I am a grumpy zombie with a leaky nose and dark circles under my eyes.

LOSING SLEEP OVER PANDEMIC

In getting to the bottom of my insomnia, I started shortlisting some possible culprits.

Age and social media addiction are definitely on the list, but a global sleep survey by Philips hauled in a new suspect - the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the study published in March, nearly seven in 10 adults have experienced one or more new sleep challenges since the pandemic began, with three in five reporting that the pandemic has affected their ability to sleep well.

The same poll also revealed that close to three in 10 Singaporean adults are getting less sleep each night. Apparently, we sleep an average of 6.8 hours a night, shy of the seven to nine hours usually recommended by sleep experts.

Dr Lee Yeow Hian, a consultant chest and sleep physician at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said insomnia cases at his clinic have roughly doubled in the past year.

Younger adults in their 20s and 30s, like me, have not been spared.

Dr Lee attributes this spike to general anxiety about the pandemic and work-from-home arrangements, which can chip away at one's usual routine.

"Once you lose structure to your day, there is no pressure to wake up and to sleep," he said. "Sunlight exposure also helps to regulate our body clocks. If you're not going to work but staying at home, your body will run on its own time."

Indeed, some days it feels like I have permanent jet lag. It doesn't help that, just as things seem to be looking up, Singapore's new heightened alert phase swoops in like a nightmarish deja vu of last year's circuit breaker.

So many of us now go to bed dreading that we will wake up to more bad news.

But as convenient as it is to pin my sleep woes on the pandemic, I know it is just a scapegoat.

The drawn-out nature of the pandemic has somewhat desensitised me into accepting that masks and vaccines, rather than worrying about the situation, are way more helpful.

Sure, Miss Rona - Twitter slang for the coronavirus - may have jumbled my circadian rhythm and account for some of my anxiety, but she doesn't explain the strange desire I have to spend the night with Gordon Ramsay and crab cakes.

I've tried warding off insomnia many times, from dimming my lights and cutting down on caffeine, to popping melatonin and switching my phone to airplane mode.

None of these remedies has worked consistently. Even when my body is tired, my mind is wired and itching for more. And so I toss, turn and somehow find myself revisiting old Zoe Tay dramas.

ANXIETY-LADEN SLUMBER

So why is it that I need and want more sleep, but seem to refuse it at the same time?

Doctors I spoke to said sleep and psychology are closely intertwined. "More than 90 per cent of sleep problems are not from insomnia per se, but symptoms of underlying depressive, anxiety and stress disorders," said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre.

While I haven't been diagnosed with a disorder, I have found that my desire to stay up also stems from anxious thoughts. In particular, I fear losing control over my time and direction in life.

With work and social engagements, personal time during the day can be scarce, so I frequently and deliberately delay sleep in order to enjoy more "me time".

Some call this revenge bedtime procrastination, in which night-time leisure exacts "revenge" on a busy or stressful day that one has little influence over.

This phenomenon is common among those who work long hours, said Dr Lim. "The only time they can squeeze out to exercise, to catch some entertainment or to relax - they squeeze out of bedtime," he observed. "It shows that our priorities are generally not our sleep and our health."

Lacking control over my life also bugs me. While adults in their 40s tend to mull over existential issues like ageing and mortality, those in their 30s may fret over their personal and professional achievements, often comparing themselves to others, noted Dr Lim.

"They take stock and ask: What have I done for my career? Am I on the right trajectory? Why am I not married?"

In a competitive society like Singapore, even things like work performance and having children could morph into stressors.

I am guilty of dwelling on such matters when I'm alone at night. I think about my career and how I have yet to accomplish as much as some of my peers.

I hug my pillow and realise that super single isn't just my mattress size - it is also an apt description of my love life.

Social media exacerbates these insecurities with photos of friends cuddling their newborns and rolling pineapples into their new apartments for prosperity.

While I'm happy for them, I can't help but wonder when my turn will come, if at all. If it doesn't, I have a choice of either being at peace with that, or losing more sleep. Although the choice is obvious, it is easier said than done.

EXPEL THE NEGATIVE

Rather than wallowing in fear and anxiety, Dr Lim suggests rethinking our negativity and proactively tackling such concerns. What's so terrible about growing old without a partner, especially if I engage in meaningful hobbies and surround myself with loved ones?

Defining ourselves beyond the workplace can also remind us that our professional identity, as important as it is, isn't everything.

Said Dr Lim: "If you're able to tell yourself that these are not worthy issues to be ruminating over at night, sleep will get better."

But what about social media's irresistible lure?

This is where good sleep hygiene, or a conducive bedtime routine and environment, comes in. Instead of using our phones or computers, Dr Lee recommends perusing a book or magazine. This still counts as precious "me time", but avoids the blue light that stimulates our brains.

"It's like reading a bedtime story to a kid to gear down," he explained. "With devices, you can get distracted and start surfing around."

Dedicating the bedroom to "just sleep and sex" is something Dr Lim strongly encourages, as this will train the brain to associate the bed with rest. Think Netflix and chill, but minus the Netflix.

For Dr Mok Yee Ming, senior consultant and chief of the Institute of Mental Health's Department of Mood and Anxiety, it is about striking the right balance.

Noting that streaming services and other distractions are here to stay, he said: "It's having a healthy respect for your body and listening to it. Balancing your interests with what's good for your body. Everything in moderation."

As I sit here typing this column at 3.38am, I know I'm still far from finding the sweet balance between work, play and sleep.

Even as I learn to renavigate bedtime procrastination, pandemic jitters and control over my life, I concede that my attitude towards sleep needs changing too.

Craving more shut-eye isn't enough - valuing it is equally important. That means making sleep a priority, instead of, erm, sleeping on it. It also means relishing rest like I used to in my salad days, and not taking it for granted.

Gordon and his crab cakes will just have to wait.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 23, 2021, with the headline 'Sleepless in Singapore: Battling insomnia in my 30s'. Subscribe