Even small daily rituals can help, says Tricia Hersey, the founder of a nap-advocacy organization called the Nap Ministry. Light a candle. Have a cup of tea in a specific place at a certain time. “Repetitive rituals are part of what makes us human and ground ourselves,” she told me. They’re also perhaps the most attainable intervention there is. Wherever you are, Hersey says, “you can daydream. You can slow down. You can find small ways to stop and remember who you are.”
To her, feeling in control over sleep is important precisely because order is lacking in so many other parts of life for so many people. Year over year, there are significant sleep disparities across the U.S. population. The amount and quality of sleep we get depend on our environment as much as, if not more than, our personal behavior. Socioeconomic status and quality sleep chart on parallel lines. The most effective way to improve sleep is to ensure that people have a calm and quiet place to rest each night, free of concerns about basic needs such as food security. The pandemic has brought the opposite assurances, exacerbating the uncertainties at the root of already-stark disparities.
As the quest for sleep falls only more to individuals, many are left to think outside the box. That has included, for some, dabbling in hypnosis. Not the kind of hypnosis where you’re onstage and told to act like a chicken, but a process slightly more refined. Christopher Fitton is one of a number of hypnotherapists who have spent the pandemic creating YouTube videos and podcasts meant to help put people to sleep. Fitton’s sessions involve 30 minutes of him saying empowering things to listeners in his pleasant, semi-whispered voice. He tells me he is now getting more than 1 million listens a month.
Hypnotherapy is meant to slow down the rapid firing of our nerves. Similar to guided meditation or deep breathing, the intent is to stop people from overthinking and allow sleep to happen naturally. As you listen to Fitton saying banal things about the muscles in your back or asking you to envision a specific tree in a specific place, “the aim is to get into a relaxed, trancelike state, where your subconscious is open to more suggestion,” he says. Then, when he tells you to sleep, your brain is less likely to argue with him about how you’re too busy, or how you need to worry more about why someone read your text message but didn’t reply.
Hypnotherapists such as Fitton provide tools to ground yourself, ultimately in pursuit of being able to do it unassisted, sans the internet. (It’s better not to bring your phone into your bedroom anyway.) Focusing involves practice; the trancelike state rarely happens easily, and no single way works for everyone. Some experimentation is usually needed. Apparently it still is for me. While listening to one of Fitton’s recordings, I couldn’t fully escape the image of him in his home office speaking softly into his microphone, reading an ad for Spotify, just as alone as everyone else.
But regardless of whom you trust to help relieve you of consciousness, now seems like an ideal time to get serious about the practice. Draw boundaries for yourself, and sleep like your life depends on it. Hopefully it won’t.