FEATURE: Insomnia spreads among young Chinese

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) - The incidence of sleep disorder in the country is 38.2 per cent, well above the international level. 

“I kept telling myself to sleep, but it didn’t work, my eyes stayed open until 5 am,” said Perinur Ewel, a second-year postgraduate student at China Agricultural University in Beijing.

Perinur, who has been having problems sleeping for over six years, often sleeps at 4 am or 5 am. Before that she’s wide-awake, even though she can feel her physical tiredness-the result of getting by on five or six hours of sleep a day.

Han Fang, president of the Chinese Sleep Research Society, said: “Our studies have found that more and more youths have sleep problems; many used to have small problems that became severe sleep diseases. We should pay more attention to the trend.”

The number of patients with sleep problems has grown considerably in the past decade, according to Guo Xiheng, director of the sleep and respiratory centre at Beijing Chaoyang Hospital, Capital Medical University.

Guo, who has studied sleep problems for 36 years, said nearly a third of his patients are younger than 30.

“The ratio was about 10 per cent 10 years ago,” he said.

A study by the sleep research society found that the incidence of sleep disorder in China is 38.2 per cent, well above the international level, which the World Health Organisation puts at 27 per cent.

The World Association of Sleep Medicine launched an annual campaign in 2008 to lessen the burden of sleep problems on society and raise people’s awareness of the issue, with the Friday before the Spring Vernal Equinox designated as World Sleep Day. This year, it was held on March 15, but China organises its own Sleep Day every March 21.

Intense pressure

Many young people are under intense pressure from work and study, and sleep less in order to compete with their peers, but that results in poor mental health and contributes to many of their sleep problems. Overuse of electronic devices, such as smartphones, is another factor significantly affecting their sleep.

Perinur, who is in her mid-20s, started to have sleep disorders in 2013, her first year at university. There was one week when she never got to sleep before 5 am.

She has been intermittently plagued by sleep problems ever since. In September 2017, her disorder worsened and she could not sleep before 4 am for a month.

More recently, she still has about three days a week when she cannot sleep well. That frustrates Perinur, who tries to force herself to sleep at a normal time.

“Every sleepless night, I cannot help my mind wandering to think of various things; something that may have happened a long time ago or something that may not even have happened or existed,” she said. “I just can’t stop it.”

Perinur takes a small dose of pills to help her get to sleep if she struggles to do so for three consecutive days. She once tried some herbal medication, said to be good for calming the nerves, but it was ineffective.

Xu Yueping, a third-year postgraduate student at Anqing Normal University in Anhui province, who wants to teach English, is preparing her graduation thesis. Its progress has been quite slow, putting her under great mental pressure.

She goes to bed around 1 am every night and wakes up before 7 am, sometimes even before 6 am, and has about three days of serious insomnia a week.

Her condition worsens if she thinks too much about her schedule or what happened during the day.

“I just cannot fall asleep,” she said. “I think my mind is more active at night, when I can think about things deeply, without interference.”

Xu, 24, said she feels trapped in a vicious circle. She is used to writing her thesis at night, but that occupies her sleep time. In turn, her thesis has progressed slowly because of her lack of rest, and increasing anxiety.

“I know insomnia and sleep disorders are quite harmful, but it is difficult for me to adjust my sleep habit immediately,” she said.

Xu began to have sleep problems three years ago. She used to chat or browse on her smartphone for an hour a night before sleeping, but recently realised that could be affecting her sleep.

She now puts her phone out of reach before going to bed. She also tried exercise and drinking milk before going to bed to try to sleep better, with limited effect.

Fierce competition

Tang Muming, a data analyst from Suzhou, Jiangsu province, began having sleep problems when she was studying for her master’s in the United States a year and a half ago.

She often goes to sleep at 2 am because of the pressure she feels, and one or two days a week she falls asleep around 4 am.

“I even counted sheep sometimes, but it didn’t work at all,” she said.

Tang, 25, used to study overnight with her classmates in the library. “There was a week when my daily sleep time was just three hours,” she said. “I was exhausted then.”

Before she was offered her present job, Tang endured a long period of anxiety as her friends fielded offers before she did. The fierce competition in the data analysis field has added to her anxieties.

“We can be easily replaced by new people,” she said. “Our jobs require us to keep updating our knowledge of big data, business analysis and artificial intelligence, since everything changes so fast.”

Han said sleep problems were not confined to college students and those in the work force, with primary and secondary school students also affected due to heavy workloads and fierce competition.

Many young adults often ignore sleep problems and have irregular lifestyles or attended too many social activities.

“They think it is fine to overdraw (their energy balance) a bit at a young age, but in the long run, their situation will be totally changed,” Han said.

People younger than 25 should not have sleep problems, Guo said, but the number of patients in that age group had increased considerably during the past five years. “Some are teenagers,” he said.

Most people 20 to 40 years old do not sleep until after midnight, which has affected their normal biological clock and resulted in declining sleep quality, short sleep duration and even loss of sleep, Guo said.

He said that ideally, an adult should get to sleep at around 10 pm and sleep for seven to eight hours.

Almost all his elderly patients developed bad sleep habits or sleep problems when they were young, Guo said.

Negative effects

The nights when she has insomnia are very tough for Perinur. Her roommates often fall asleep after midnight, leaving her awake and alone.

“The more I want to sleep, the more I cannot,” she said.

Perinur said she is more irritable and has mood swings because of her lack of sleep.

Insomnia also makes her sensitive to things happening around her-she once cried when she heard others talking about her dislikes.

“I do not want to spread my negative feelings to my friends, and I want to treat insomnia rationally,” she said.

She is now trying to read some poetry before going to bed, such as Sand and Foam by Kahlil Gibran, which can help her calm down.

Sleep problems have also made Xu emotional and irritable. She sometimes refuses to hang out with her friends because she lacks energy and is in a bad mood.

Her daily schedule was also affected when her sleep problems worsened in October. In December, she often felt sleepy during her practical sessions teaching primary school students. “One day I asked the students to leave early, because I was too sleepy to stand,” Xu said.

Wang Xiaodong contributed to this story.

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