Most of us dread the sound of our alarms in the morning, even more so when we haven’t slept the night before. We’ve all been there: the restlessness, the frustration, brain firing on all synapses, the hours in the dark going slowly, then quickly all at once.
For some, it’s a rare occurrence – often centred around a job interview, a presentation, a stressful life event – but for Daisy Maskell, it’s become a nightly routine that she’s battled for the last 14 years of her life. Even four hours of sleep for the 23-year-old Kiss FM radio host is considered a victory, whereas a bad night can see her operating on only 30 minutes the next day.
According to a series of alarming statistics, 55% of young people struggle with their sleep; hospital admissions due to sleep disorders have doubled among young people over the past seven years; and lockdown has only just made it worse with half of 16-to-24 year-olds admitting they are sleeping significantly fewer hours than they had been prior to the pandemic, in comparison to a third of those aged 35 and older.
“I genuinely feel like I’m dying today. I’m so tired, I’m so so tired,” Maskell croaks into the camera in the opening scene of the documentary. She reveals she’s had less than two hours sleep and she’s up getting ready to go to work as the UK’s youngest ever breakfast radio host. It’s a scenario she’s used to, but even at the age of 23, she’s starting to worry about the long-term damage to her mind and body from her lack of sleep.
Heart palpitations. Irregular heartbeat patterns. Maskell even often finds her eyes uncontrollably rolling to the back of her head mid-conversation to the alarm of other people. “What happens if I don’t sleep?,” she poses the question. “Almost every article tells you eventually that you’ll die from it.” And indeed, statistics show that sleeping 5 hours or less increases your mortality risk, from all causes by about 15%.
During her journey on the documentary she connects with other young people going through exactly the same thing. There is a stigma surrounding sleep disorders, but it's a lot more common than we think, and it's time to talk about it. They unpack the impact that insomnia has on their lives: nerves shot to pieces, bad moods, feelings of isolation, anxiety, overthinking, fraught social lives, regular work sick days from exhaustion. Some go through three-day periods with no sleep – and exasperated – describe feeling "mad." A repeated worry is that they feel like they are not living their best lives.
“The biggest frustration I have of my lack of sleep is it feels like everyone else can do this function so naturally,” Maskell says. “It comes so easy to everyone else. Sometimes it feels like my body is failing me.”
Throughout the documentary, in a bid to understand and cure her insomnia, she tackles the issue from all angles: from following simple online tips focused around relaxation – improving sleep hygiene, candle-lit baths, Himalayan salt lamps – to seeing a GP for blood tests, and even starting CBTI (cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia), a practice considered effective for many people, and which involves her documenting her nights with a sleep diary.
In an attempt of a more scientific approach we even see Maskell trying neurofeedback (brain-mapping), which catalogues the neurones and chemical signals being fired in her brain. It confirms what she already knew – she has an overactive brain and cannot slow down her thoughts when she closes her eyes – but then it also reveals overactivity in the deeper layers of the brain, linked to emotional trauma. “Maybe danger, maybe conflict, maybe abandonment, maybe something could be bugging you today,” the consultant confirms to a glassy-eyed Maskell.
In a moving scene, we eventually see her turning to a psychiatrist to discuss how her past experiences and childhood has potentially affected her brain. The reality is that 9/10 people with PTSD suffer with insomnia, and it’s very rarely a standalone diagnosis but usually a symptom of something else; insomnia is also related to an increased risk of eating disorders, and in a cyclical way, eating disorders are related to more disrupted sleep.
All in all, it is a powerful, eye-opening and very relatable look inside the sleep epidemic sweeping Gen Z – but also an empowering reassurance that there are things within our power that we can do to change the narrative. The first step? Seek professional help. It’s an incredibly brave move from Maskell, and will no doubt console the many still awake at home that they are not alone.
Daisy Maskell: Insomnia and Me airs on BBC Three on Tuesday 10th August.