If you feel like you’re not getting enough sleep, you are not alone. We all know we need to chill out in order to get better sleep, but it seems like the more we try, the harder we fail.
Nighttime rumination, the tendency to cycle through thoughts and repetitively reflect on every little thing you’ve ever done, is a major factor in poor sleep. In fact, pre-sleep cognitive arousal (like intrusive thoughts) has been found to be more disruptive to sleep than physiological arousal (such as an elevated heart rate).
The reason bedtime stories for adults work is because they distract us from our stress. For many people, stopping the wheels from turning in our brains is the key to getting to sleep, and sleep podcasts are designed to gently nestle a wrench into those gears.
One of the first sleep podcasts, Drew Ackerman’s Sleep With Me, started in 2013. Ackerman, who had insomnia as a child, is now dedicating himself to “those who feel alone in the deep dark night and just need someone to tell them a bedtime story.”
Like many podcasts designed to put listeners to sleep, Ackerman’s goal isn’t to get people invested in his stories, but rather to engage them just enough to take their minds off their troubles. From there, he wants to bore you to sleep.
Funny enough, Bore You To Sleep is the name of another podcast providing sleep stories for adults. Read slowly and without feeling, it offers such non-adventures as “Tractor Principles,” an episode that is a reading from Roger B. Whitman’s 1920 book on all the mechanisms that make a tractor work.
If you’re like me, you might be unlucky enough to try and follow Ackerman’s rambling stories or get unexpectedly caught up in the fascinatingly complex mechanics of tractor wheels. If so, Kathryn Nicolai’s wildly popular Nothing Much Happens was closer to the low-stakes listening I needed. But let me offer you a pro-tip: Don’t spend time trying to choose the perfect episode of this podcast, because I can assure you that nothing much happens in any of them. They’re just enough to allow Nicolai’s soothing voice to drown out the inner critic trying to keep you awake.
Of course, not all insomnia can be solved with storytelling. There are medical and even genetic barriers to sleep for some of us. But a little podcast probably couldn’t hurt. According to Dr. Christine Won, the medical director of the Yale Centers for Sleep Medicine and director of the Yale Women's Sleep Health program, listening to stories “won't work for everybody, but for those that it does work for, it's a great way to distract the brain from perseverating on stressors and worries that may keep you up at night.”
Over 100 million people have downloaded the Calm app, which was initially devoted to meditation and mindfulness. Then, co-CEO Michael Acton Smith saw that app usage spiked in the evenings at bedtime. While some types of meditation can ease insomnia, others are stimulating. So, the Calm team thought, why not create content specifically designed for bedtime? In 2016, the app launched the “Sleep Stories” series, often with readings by celebrities.
It turns out Calm got it right. Over 450 million people have listened to these stories. A couple of these—Anna Acton’s “Iceland’s Midnight Sun” and LeBron James’s “King of the Sleeping City”—work for me. I can’t tell you why they work, but they do. Acton Smith believes the optimal time for a sleep story is 24 minutes long, and I’ve never heard the end (or even the middle) of either one.
A couple of these—Anna Acton’s “Iceland’s Midnight Sun” and LeBron James’s “King of the Sleeping City”—work for me. I can’t tell you why they work, but they do.
The first recorded story in human history is about a man trying very hard not to fall asleep. Having become obsessed with the idea of immortality, he gets the chance to be granted eternal life if only he can stay awake for six days and seven nights. He agrees to the terms and, finally given the chance to achieve what he’s obsessed over his whole life, goes to sit down by the river, where he accidentally zonks out for seven straight days.
While the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh might not make the best bedtime story, it does remind us that the best sleep often comes when we’re somehow distracted and not really trying.
Want more sleep tips from the kids? Read: “Yes, Grownups Need a Bedtime.”