The real reason insomniacs can’t sleep

This week, I had a piece about insomnia published in Stylist (you can read it here). As part of my research, I interviewed Dr Guy Meadows, founder of The Sleep School, who emphasised something non-sufferers don’t always realise about insomnia: it is a learned condition. While a stressful event might have sparked the problem initially, it’s anxiety about being unable to sleep that triggers chronic insomnia. As a frequent sufferer (and insomnia really does cause suffering), I have sometimes felt frustrated by doctors asking whether I’m worried about anything. Yes, Doctor, I’m worried about another sleepless night. That’s the cycle you have to break if you want to resolve insomnia. Dr Meadows believes the secret is to stop employing strategies to beat the problem (such as taking steps to relax before bed) – he feels that just builds the quest for sleep into something bigger than it is. Instead, us insomniacs need to learn to mimic those fortunate but rather annoying people who naturally sleep well. What do they do to prepare for bed? Nothing. They just put head to pillow and start snoring.

If you’re on first-name terms with those sheep you’re counting, Dr Meadows recommends the mindfulness approach: hold the anxious thoughts a bit more lightly. Rather than trying to banish negative thoughts about sleep (like one of my favourites: ‘What happens if I never sleep again?’), simply observe the thought pop into your mind, understand it’s just a thought, and watch it drift away again. It takes a bit of practice, but it works. If you want to learn more about Dr Meadows’ approach, I’d really recommend one of his workshops or courses. I’m going through a phase of sleeping well at the moment, so I’m not going to jinx it by thinking about insomnia for another moment…Image

The myth of delayed motherhood

The television presenter Kate Garraway is fronting a new campaign that urges women not to delay motherhood. On the website for the campaign, which is being launched by First Response (manufacturers of ovulation and pregnancy tests – funny that), we’re told Kate is encouraging women to think about their fertility earlier in life. ‘I know careers and finances seem important but you only have a small fertility window,’ says Kate, who had her children at 38 and 42.

I can’t imagine who Kate’s/First Response’s message is actually aimed at. I don’t believe there are any women who a) are unaware their fertility is declining by the year or b) are deliberately putting off motherhood until they’ve reached the top of the corporate ladder. For the majority of women who want children but don’t yet have them, the reason is beyond their control – it’s usually that they haven’t met a suitable partner at the biologically optimal time. I don’t know any ‘career women’ calculatingly putting off conception, but I know plenty of women in their thirties and forties struggling to find a stable relationship. And, when you’re 35+ and single, being bombarded with patronising pleas not to delay motherhood is likely to fill you with panic and despair.

Why aren’t men ever targeted in these campaigns? Why does Kate only want women to think about their fertility? Conception does require two, after all. In relationships, it’s quite often men, not women, who want to delay starting a family – perhaps, if they were more educated on the subject, there wouldn’t be so many men telling their 30-something partners that they want children ‘one day, just not yet.’

This myth that women deliberately delay motherhood needs to be crushed. The medical profession and society as a whole need to accept that women *are* having children later, usually not through choice, and find ways to support them. If you’re in any doubt about how strongly women feel about this, here’s my Facebook thread that inspired my post.

Charlotte MacNeil

4 hours ago near London ·

Riled this morning by Kate Garraway-fronted (advertising) campaign from First Response warning women not to delay motherhood. Complete failure to understand that for most women, ‘leaving it late’ is not a choice but due to circumstances beyond their control (usually lack of suitable partner). Messages like this merely induce panic and heartache. (And why is her face so dirty?) annoyed.
TV presenter Kate Garraway is fronting a fertility campaign (pictured) to get women thinking about pregnancy earlier, after regretting having her own at the age of 38 and 42.
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  • Vincent Gauci Have they deliberately aged her in that pic? Her hands look 66 not 46.
  • Charlotte MacNeil Yes, the idea is to trigger revulsion at the idea of an older pregnant woman. Apparently your face gets grubbier with age.
  • Hannah Fox That article is totally insulting and patronising. I’m with you Charlotte – if I cd meet the man I wanted to have children with now, I’d have them! You’re right, it does just induce panic and heartache!
  • Jo Wheatley cant stand her anyway and even more so now ! Glad i waited couldnt have coped with kids any earlier
  • Sally Thorne It is nonsense Charlotte!
  • Sally Thorne Should be a national campaign to wait until your relationship is stable and you can financially support your own kids before having them. That said I often think I should have had mine at 21 purely from energy point of view – I have 2 boys. But that’s no good if you have no house and still at university
  • Charlotte MacNeil I have many friends my age who haven’t had children yet and have never heard one of them say, ‘Hmm, I’ve decided to leave it until I’m 39 because I want to focus on my work until then.’ (although that’s a fair enough choice too). In nearly every case, …See More
  • Hannah Doyle This is such a middle-class stupid campaign. It’s irrelevant in every circumstance apart from the one where the fertile woman in a stable relationship with a flexible job decides ‘I could have a baby now but I’ll wait, just because’ (that woman doesn’t really exist).
  • Charlotte MacNeil Exactly, Hannah! I wish I could like that comment ten times.
  • Maria Lally I completely agree Charlotte (& Hannah). Also, what does the term ‘career woman’ even mean? When do you ever hear of a man with a job being referred to as a ‘career man’. He’s just a man with a job. Kate G should know better x
  • Jenny Sharp I’ve read this twice and retuned to it again, I’m fuming! Several points… The only reason the percentage is seemingly rising is that women who would have been 20 in the 90’s have not had children until recent, maybe women in the 90’s realised that t…See More
  • Justin Hood If I was her, I’d be more worried about the person I was married to than the fact that she’s lucky enough to have two healthy kids:

    Derek William Draper (born 15 August 1967) is a former English lobbyist. As a po…See more
  • Charlotte MacNeil In my fury I had actually completely forgotten she is married to him! What is he up to these days? Will have a read…
  • Salena Godden kill my eyes! i cannot un-see / un-read this article and above all whats with the weird grey wig?
  • Salena Godden oh its the daily mail! no wonder! quick wash your brain out go and read 10 pages of something good, something inspiring…xx
  • Roisin MacNeil Trainor I haven’t read the article, however as a single 24yo I am sort of at the very beginning of people starting to ask me why I don’t have a partner and friends with kids telling me I should have one. I know a couple of girls younger than me who’re married/…See More
  • Roz Ryan I’ve decided not to have children but articles like make me so angry for all my friends/family/women everywhere. It also paints me as selfish and stupid for not doing the only thing the Mail feel gives women any value. Where are the pictures of old men…See More
  • Hannah Doyle Charlotte can you copy this post and all its comments into a blogpost and we’ll all share/retweet the hell out of it?
  • Charlotte MacNeil Yes, good idea. Just going for run (!) then will do it.
  • Jenny Sharp Send me the link when you do it… I’m useless on twitter!
  • Sara Musgrave From Australia, I agree completely Charlotte. It’s high time the misconception got corrected. It’s not a choice, it’s just a sad reality for a lot of women these days because they can’t find a suitable partner. I don’t understand why the media keeps pedaling this untruth. It’s almost as bad as the misconception that size doesn’t matter
  • Sara Musgrave Charlotte, can you write an article outlining the important points you (and others) make above about this spurious career woman putting off having kids actually being a figment of society (?) the media (?), mens (?) imagination ?? I’m sure it would resonate.
  • Sara Musgrave Like you, I have many, many friends who are now 40, 41 who have not had children and not one of them has ever said, ‘I think I will wait because of my fantastic career.’ It’s been because they haven’t managed to find the right guy (not for want of trying). At the same time, they are successful, because they r smart and have worked for a long time now in their chosen industry.
  • Charlotte MacNeil I’ve pitched this idea a couple of times, Sara – but will have another go, perhaps with a screen grab of this page to prove that women will want to read it! I have to say that I and other journalists I know (many commenting here) do our best to slide the reality into pieces we write about fertility. The myth is often perpetuated in quite an insidious way – just a throwaway line in a feature – and that’s something that needs to stop.
  • Sara Musgrave I might have a go over here at writing something. If you see any articles popping up in response to that ridiculous Garraway campaign, I’d love it if you could let me know.
  • Jenny Sharp I think it resonates to all women of child bearing age. I had children at 26, this wasn’t a house it just happened, my career is this on hold, and I will be back on track soon enough. If I hadn’t had them who know where life would have taken me? Does this mean I’m a career woman , a stay at home mum, a working mum? Do I really need a label, I am a woman!



The extreme female brain

You might have read about Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ brain types. Those inverted commas are there to indicate these don’t necessarily correspond to gender, although Baron-Cohen believes more women tend to have a brain that is hardwired for empathy (brain type E), while on average, men are more likely to have a brain that predominantly systemises – in other words, analyses and explores systems (type S). A more balanced brain type (B) can systemise and empathise equally. The aspect of this theory that has gained the most attention over the past decade is the possibility that people with autism may have an extreme male brain – talented at systemising, but very bad at empathising.

But what about an extreme female brain? I started to wonder about this when I took Baron-Cohen’s systemising quotient test online (I’ve never been able to resist a quiz – and if you can’t, either, you’ll find links at the bottom of this post). I scored a dismal 8 – any score under 19 indicates a low ability for analysing and exploring systems, and the average woman scores 24. Then I took the empathy quotient test and scored 72 out of 80, suggesting a very high ability for empathy and an intuitive understanding of how to care for others (the average woman scores 47). My brain type, then, could be categorised as an extreme female brain.

Except that apparently hasn’t been discovered. It’s human nature to want to feel special and different, I think, but unfortunately this doesn’t necessarily mean I have a rare and precious type of mind. Scientists aren’t sure how the extreme female brain would manifest simply because it wouldn’t present the difficulties and obstacles of the sort experienced by people with autism. Through the ages, individuals with extreme female brains wouldn’t have stood out in society because their natural skills at navigating social networks would have masked any practical shortcomings. Difficulties fashioning a rudimentary tool for killing prey (early man example)/resolving that MacBook issue (modern example)? No problem – the communication abilities of someone with an extreme female brain would always ensure the right support from others.

More recently, research has posited the theory that a hyper-empathic brain may sometimes lead to over-concern with others’ judgement, and thus perhaps to eating disorders. And this is purely my own speculation, but I’d imagine this brain type might have a tendency to anxiety as a result of absorbing others’ emotions. Whatever the disadvantages, though, there’s no doubt that life’s easier if you get on with people.

Baron-Cohen’s theories are controversial – not everyone agrees with them, and there’s concern they may lead to gender stereotyping. You can read his defence against that charge here. Personally, I think there’s something liberating about understanding there are simply different types of mind – that you may not be too sensitive, too analytical, too obsessive, etc; it’s just the way your brain is. Society just wouldn’t function if everyone thought the same way – different brain types offer different skills. Vive la difference.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about your own brain type (surely you are?!), you can take the tests here.


My super-talented husband being interviewed about his acclaimed album with the brilliant Willie Campbell…

Originally posted on glasGOwest:

I’ve spent a good deal of time listening to your voice on ‘Colombian Fireworks’. I think I replayed that opening track such a disproportionate amount of time that it seriously delayed my appreciation of the rest of the record. How did that come about and how did you convince them to make it the lead track?

“I really like what There Will Be Fireworks did with ‘Colombian Fireworks’. It came about because we happened to meet at a gig and they subsequently emailed and asked if I would write something for them. They’re great musicians and I was happy to create a new piece of work for them. I was living in Shetland at the time and my brother came to visit and recorded my voice. I deliberately wrote about fireworks to chime with the band name. I visited Colombia a few years ago and mentally absorbed something of the…

View original 1,885 more words

On Creativity & Madness


Creativity is often connected to mental illness, Swedish research has found, confirming a widely-held belief. Writers appear to be most susceptible, with a raised risk of anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, unipolar depression and substance abuse; they’re also twice as likely to kill themselves when compared to the general population.

So is it time we began focusing on the more positive aspects of psychiatric disorders – the fact that schizophrenia may enable a painter to produce unique images, or bipolar disorder give a poet the drive to write? It seems largely true that great works of art and literature are rarely the products of balanced, unruffled minds (wandering around the recent Munch exhibition at Tate Modern was a stark reminder of this). Creative people are usually very sensitive; this often goes hand-in-hand with empathy and imagination. But it also tends to mean you feel things very intensely, hence the risk of depression, anxiety, alcoholism and other disorders.

But there is a risk of glamourising mental disorders. Let’s not forget many of these illnesses can grind you down so you can barely lift your head off the pillow, let alone pen a poem. Much time can be wasted drinking, worrying obsessively or trying to find the energy to brush your teeth. The musician Kristin Hersh says of her bipolar disorder: “I hated the connection between mental illness and art. I couldn’t stand that you had to be sick in order to create beauty, or confused to create truth. It made no sense. It was a huge relief to be essentially cured.” I wonder how many talented writers/painters/musicians would swap their gifts for peace of mind?


A new short story

I’m thrilled to have a short story, The Old Ways, published in the fantastic literary magazine Northwords Now. You can read it on page 8 here:

The magazine also features interviews with John Burnside and Iain Banks.

Aren’t times always uncertain?

I’ve never heard the phrase ‘uncertain times’ uttered as often as I have in 2012. Usually it’s in connection with a story about our bubbling-over stress levels. It certainly makes sense that we’re feeling so anxious – we’re living through the worst recession since World War II and nobody really knows how it’s going to pan out. Us human beings like to feel we have control over our lives; studies show lack of it is one of the biggest factors in stress, so no wonder we’re worried when everything feels so wonky.

But the reality is that life is always uncertain. The potential for things to crumble seems close to the surface right now; however, in truth, we never know what’s around the corner, even when times are good. Years ago, I interviewed the American speaker and writer Byron Katie, and she told me: ‘We are never really in control. We just think we are when things happen to be going our way.’ I’ve never forgotten that.

Not that I’ve mastered the fine art of acceptance; I try, but I’m a certified worrier, which makes laidback serenity a challenge. However, I did work out at an early age that it’s unwise to devise a rigid life plan (to be honest, plans aren’t really me, anyway – I’m far too scatty). There’s nothing wrong with having a direction in mind; if you don’t, you risk drifting aimlessly. But, personally, I think it’s best to not to grip too tightly to your map. 

The uncertainty-averse should check out Professor Robert Leahy’s brilliant book The Worry Cure, which has lots of advice for accepting instability. One of them is the boredom technique – you repeat your worrying thought [eg ‘I might lose my job’] over and over for twenty minutes, really focusing on the words. After this time, you’ll find it so tedious you won’t be able to think about it anymore. Trust me, this works: boredom is underrated as a motivation for change.

And here’s a comforting thought from an experienced fretter: little is as bad as we fear. Statistics show 85 per cent of our worries actually have a positive outcome. Besides, if things do turn out for the worst, it just means something else will happen. And that might be interesting.


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