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Oxford Literary Festival and the ‘and finally..’

I do love audience questions. They get to the nub of things. They make you think. And some really seem to come from left-field.

I was in the Corpus Christi lecture hall this morning, to talk to readers of Rise as part of the Oxford Literary Festival. The interview with Elizabeth Healey was coming to an end (incidentally, she’s a neuroscientist, actress, writer, director and TV reporter. I told her I should have been interviewing her, not the other way around) and it was time to throw it out to the assembled crowd.

We’d been discussing hope, optimism and growth in the face of struggles and challenges and how to build yourself a first aid kit for the mind to help you through tough times. One of the questions was about my top tip to help recovery. ‘There’s loads…” I begin as a preface to reeling off a whole load of them. To which the very astute, not-taking-that-for-an-answer reader, said “No, just one. Your top tip, please”.

‘It’s about sleep’. I said. Sleep is often the thing that’s most affected when we’re in the middle of something traumatic. We take our experiences to bed with us and sleep cements those memories. So if we’re in a state of toxic anxiety when our head hits the pillow, the brain will not only replay it all when we’re asleep, it’ll ‘lay it down’ too. Far better, research suggests to try to think of two or three good things, however small, when we’re trying to rest. The sun shone, a friend sent a text, I enjoyed lunch. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter.

Light too, makes an enormous difference. (I know, this is strictly two tips….) We know that computers naturally emit blue light – the kind of light that primes our brain to wake. So our brains are not being primed to go to sleep if we’re looking at them before bed, it’s being primed to stay awake. And the role of light in how we wake up is key too. I’d done an experiment at the University of Westminster where they measure the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol. When I woke to gradually increasing early morning light, my cortisol levels were variable (read: better) throughout the day and I performed more strongly in intelligence tests later too. I was one of hundreds of subjects in the experiment and their results were similar.

‘If that’s the case’ said another audience member ‘should we stop watching TV at night too?’

Good question, yes? And I had to admit, I didn’t know if TVs emit the same light (I’m Googling it as I type, anyone seen some good, recent research?) but it did remind me of a conversation I’d had with someone only a few days ago when they spoke about what they were watching just before they turned in for the night and how it affected them. ‘It’s doom and gloom everywhere’ he said ‘I can’t take it anymore. I have to switch the evening news off. When did they get rid of the ‘and finally’? Can’t we bring it back? Can’t we at least go to bed with something positive?’

I don’t think he wanted lots of skateboarding dogs, although they’re fun, very, very occasionally. But he had an interesting point. If we’re talking about sleep cementing memories, I said, then maybe, in the midst of all this horrific news at the moment, hearing about the wonderful acts of humanity all around us, would make us feel better about life. That it’s not all about terror and death and destruction. It’s also about compassion and heroism and hope and all the other things we saw last week. Perhaps we should make sure that we give time to that side of the human condition too? Balance and hope and positivity in all things.