How guided sleep meditation apps helped me sleep

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It’s 4am again and I’m wandering around a marina and am introduced by name to a group of local cats.

Everyone has a boat and a backstory, and I meet them all thanks to the most low-key, soothing voice possible. After meeting the smug ginger, Grand Saba, and tiny Bebe, I finally nod off and fall asleep. It’s been a while.

This is just one of the many pre-bed audio trips I have taken to help overcome a bout of insomnia after moving to other countries. It’s known as a “sleep cast,” a type of sleep meditation podcast hybrid that was introduced by mindfulness app Headspace in 2018. You’re not the first to do it, but you really did it.

I had never experienced this level of insomnia before and was lucky enough to avoid it at this intensity for most of my life. I had just moved to London from Sydney, started a new job, and done my best to find an apartment in a whole new country that would accommodate me, my partner and our Irish Wolfhound Cross Padfoot. This proved to be a hell of a stressful task that suddenly left me sleepless and determined but uselessly flipping through real estate ads on my phone for ungodly hours of the night.

During that time, I worked on an hour or two of sleep breaks each night for about two months. Something had to change – I saw stars in meetings and just quietly lost my fucking mind. And then I found my way to the Cat Marina.

I’ve been using the Headspace meditation app for a number of years, doing the basic exercises, but haven’t really branched out to other parts of the app. The sleep section isn’t hard to find – just click the little moon icon in the footer menu. At the top of the feed you will find the Sleepcasts, as Headspace calls them: “Audio content that has been specially developed to create the right conditions for a healthy, restful sleep.”

Sleepcasts are a collection of 45- to 55-minute stories told with deliberately soothing voices, beginning with a meditation or breathing exercise, followed by a narrated tour of a really cool place. Everyone feels like an adult bedtime story, an effective ritual that we lose when we grow up and have no one to plug us in and tell us to sleep. According to Headspace, the voices and attitudes should “evoke a feeling of calm and security”.

It’s the equivalent of Abe Simpson telling a lengthy story.

You can switch the ratio of ambience to voice and choose from a number of scenarios or, more precisely, “tour” through certain settings. My personal favorites are the midnight washer (ooh), night swimming (aah), slow train (safe), desert campfire (classic) and of course Cat Marina (there it is). Every recording is changed every night, so the story is a little different every time you listen. “That way, you can’t memorize the narrative and use it to track the passage of time. We found that restless sleepers may be scared,” the Headspace website said.

Here’s one, Rainday Antiques, where you can shelter from a storm in a cozy, velvet-covered shop full of curios, ornaments, and artwork. The description of the facility goes into the smallest detail – the physical characteristics of the store, the clientele, the owner, the weather outside, and the weird and wonderful items in stock – and it all happens extremely slowly. It’s the equivalent of Abe Simpson telling a lengthy story. But there is no onion tied to anyone’s belt.

“Unlike podcasts, TV shows or audio books, headspace sleepcasts don’t follow the normal story structure. Each tour is a tour of a different landscape, which means there is no beginning, no middle or no end. You can go anywhere hear where you want and fall asleep without missing a thing, “describes Headspace. “Just like a bedtime story, a sleep cast is supposed to calm the listener – keep the mind busy enough to distract it from the day’s events, but not so much that it stays awake.”

Some are available without signing up for a paid subscription to Headspace, while most are locked out. It depends on how often you think you will be using it and the other parts of the app whether or not you feel like a bit more variety.

Sleep meditation apps aren’t really common on their own, but most meditation apps have at least some specific practices that focus specifically on improving sleep. Rival app Calm has its own selection of sleep stories released two years before Headspace in 2016. Nick Offerman, Stephen Fry, Lucy Liu, and Matthew McConaughey read original stories you can head out to. The tiny problem for me with these stories is that I want to hear the end of Stephen Fry’s forays into the south of France and not fall asleep in the middle of it.

Sleepcast style seems to be more dominant in podcasts, including Apple Chart topper Sleep With Me, which is based on the same idea as Headspace and Calm – adult bedtime stories told in a deliberately quiet, calming tone to get you started fall asleep before the story is over Apart from that, apps like Omvana, 10 percent happier, and Stop, Breathe and Think all have strong sleep sections, I just didn’t click as much with their meditations as I did with the sleepcasts. Everyone is different and it probably had a lot to do with the cats.

Maybe it read an old-fashioned bedtime story as an adult. Maybe it finally managed to find an apartment (it finally happened, in case you are wondering). But sleep shows made my battle with insomnia so much more bearable and eventually helped me get rid of it for good. I never made it to the end of what was happening at the Rainday Antiques Store. The midnight washer stayed open while I nodded off. These sleep shows are really effective, at least for me, and something I can come back to over and over again. Maybe one night I’ll finally meet all the cats in the marina. Unlikely.

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