Thursday, 8 March 2012

Sleep pattern anxiety - did we used to sleep in stages? The 8 hour sleep myth

This fascinating BBC article reports on research that suggests how humans may naturally tend towards sleeping in segments throughout the night rather than the traditional eight hours that our current culture assumes is the correct amount. This is fascinating stuff and has potential links to anxiety about sleep as we shall see.

Roger Ekirch's book At Day's Close: Nights in Times Past brings together over 500 historical accounts from Homer to 16th Century France indicating that in the past it was normal for humans to sleep in two four hour segments with a two hour break in the middle.

During the break it was common for people to get up, smoke tobacco, meditate on their dreams, pray, read or simply lie awake until the next segment of sleep took them.

A 1595 engraving by Jan Saenredam provides evidence of activity at night
"And at the wakening of your first sleepe You shall have a hott drinke made, And at the wakening of your next sleepe Your sorrowes will have a slake." Early English ballad, Old Robin of Portingale

Studies (Wehr 1992) suggest that although we have adapted pretty quickly to sleeping in 8 hour blocks, we do still have a tendency to drop into the old bi-modal patterns of sleep given the chance.

Ekrich suggests that this is only becomes a problem when people who tend towards waking up at night get concerned that they are not sleeping 'correctly' and get anxious.

This waking could also lead to a diagnosis of conditions such as 'sleep maintenance insomnia', medicalising a normal phenomenon and potentially exacerbating anxiety.

Problems occur when sleep related anxiety seeps into everyday lives because too much worrying leads to depression.

As we know, symptoms of depression are the effects of too much pressure on the the REM sleep process as it tries to de-arouse the endless stream of worries that were not acted upon or resolved during the day.

If you would like to learn more about this, read about the link between REM sleep and depression here or check out our book on dreaming, Dreaming Reality: Why dreaming can keep us sane or drive us mad.

In the mean time, if you find yourself lying awake in the middle of the night, just relax and wait for sleep to come again... it is probably not insomnia, just your sleep pattern harking back to the olden days!


  1. I still follow the 8 hour sleep not because I read it in the books but because it's the right amount of sleep that I need in order to become productive during the day. Less than 8 hours of sleep usually makes me grumpy and irritable.

  2. if you're concerned about not enough sleep, you can still get 8 hours in 2 4-hour periods