How South Korea became one of the countries in the world with the most insomnia problems among its inhabitants

How South Korea became one of the countries in the world with the most insomnia problems among its inhabitants

Ji-Eun started started to have sleeping troubles when his office hours became so intense that he could no longer relax. She typically worked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and on the busiest days, the 29-year-old PR agent used to stay in the office until three in the morning.

His boss often called him in the middle of the night, asking him for tasks that needed to be done immediately. “It was almost like I forgot how to relax,” she says.

At the Dream Sleep Clinic, located in the glitzy Gangnam district of Seoul, Dr. Ji-hyeon Leea sleep psychiatrist, says frequently treats clients who take up to 20 sleeping pills per night. “In general, it takes time to fall asleep, but south koreans want to sleep real fast and that’s why they take medicine,” he explains to the BBC.

Addiction to sleeping pills it’s a national epidemic. There are no official statistics, but it is estimated that 100,000 Koreans are addicted to sleeping pills. When they still can’t sleep, they often turn to alcohol in addition to medication, which has dangerous consequences.

Dr. Ji-hyeon Lee is a psychiatrist specializing in sleep disorders.BBC

people sleepwalk. They go to the fridge and eat a lot of things unconsciously, even raw foods,” says Lee. “There have been cases of car accidents in downtown Seoul caused by a sleepwalking patient.”

Dr. Lee is used to receiving in his office chronic insomniacs suffering from what is called hyperarousal (which produces brain activation and prevents us from sleeping well).

Some of his patients tell him that they haven’t slept in decades more than a few hours per night. “They cry, but they still have a thread of hope (when they come to the consultation). It’s a very sad situation,” says the psychologist.

Overworked, stressed and sleepy

South Korea it is one of the most sleep-deprived nations in the world. It also has the highest suicide rate among developed countries, the highest consumption of hard alcohol, and a large number of people taking antidepressants. There are historical reasons behind these statistics.

South Korea's sleep deprivation tops global statistics
South Korea’s sleep deprivation tops global statisticspixel

In a few decades, the country has gone from being one of the poorest in the world to one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world.

Moreover, thanks to its growing influence on pop culture, exerts considerable “soft power” (in English, sweet power – a term used in international relations to describe the ability to influence actions or interests through cultural and ideological means). Nations with similar backgrounds, such as Saudi Arabia Yes United Arab Emiratesthey could take advantage of its natural resources, but Korea does not have this hidden wealth.

It has been transformed by the sheer dedication of a population driven by a collective nationalism that drives them to work harder and faster. One result is that your employees are overworked, stressed and sleep deprived.

Now, an entire industry has grown up around catering for those who can’t sleep; It is estimated that the sleep industry had a value of $2.5 billion in 2019.

a thriving industry

In Seoul, department stores are devoted to sleep products, from the perfect sheets to the optimal pillow, while pharmacies offer shelves filled with herbal remedies and sleep tonics.

And then there are the technological approaches to insomnia. A little over two years ago, Daniel Tudor launched a meditation app, kokkiriintended to help stressed young Koreans.

Although South Korea is historically a Buddhist country, young people believe that meditation it’s an old people’s pastime, not something an office worker in Seoul could do. Daniel says he had to reimport and repackage the meditation as a Western idea for young Koreans to find it appealing.

More traditional institutions are also getting in on the action. Hyerang Sunim he is a buddhist monk help organize retreats in a temple on the outskirts of Seoul where sleep deprived people can meditate and absorb Buddhist teachings.

Buddhist temples, which often host sleep retreats, have been criticized for preying on people with sleep disorders
Buddhist temples, which often host sleep retreats, have been criticized for preying on people with sleep disordersBBC

In the past, these types of mini-breaks were reserved for retirees who wanted teaching and prayer. Now participants tend to be youngest Koreans of working age.

But these same Buddhist temples have also been criticized for taking advantage of such retreats. “Of course, there are concerns…but I think the benefits outweigh them,” Hyerang Sunim said.

Traditionally, it was rare to see young people coming to seek Buddhist teachings. And (now) they get a lot out of their interactions with the temple stay.

The need for fundamental change

Lee Hye Riwho attended one of these Buddhist retreats when the pressure at work became intolerable, says he learned to take responsibility for his stress. ”It all starts with me; all my problems start from me. That’s what I learned here”, explains the young woman.

But defining the solution to stress and sleep deprivation as something to be dealt with on an individual level can be annoying. Those who believe that the disorder is caused by an unreasonable work culture and social pressures criticize this individualistic approach, believing that amounts to blaming the victims.

these reviews they say meditation or relaxation is a patchand that real solutions can only emerge through fundamental changes in society.

Ji Eun ended up so sleep deprived and stressed that decided to quit his job. He now works much more reasonable hours as a freelancer and, due to the pandemic, can work from home. She also sought professional help from Dr. Lee’s sleep clinic to control her insomnia.

“What is the point of working so hard now that we have reached the top as a country? Ji-Eun says. “We should be able to relax”.

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