Asian studies

The big problem of insomnia in South Korea

South Korea is one of the most sleep deprived countries in the world.Ji-Eun started having trouble sleeping when her office hours became so exhausting that she couldn’t relax.Normally, she worked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. On the busiest days, the 29-year-old public relations agent often stayed in the office until three in the morning.His boss often called him in the middle of the night, asking him to complete tasks immediately.”It was almost like I forgot how to relax,” she says.

At the Dream Sleep Clinic in Seoul’s upscale Gangnam district, sleep psychiatrist Dr. Ji-hyeon Lee says she often treats clients who take up to 20 sleeping pills a night.”It usually takes a while to fall asleep, but South Koreans want to fall asleep very quickly, so they take medicine,” she told the BBC.Sleeping pill addiction is 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, with dangerous consequences.

Doctor Ji-hyeon Lee
image caption,Dr. Ji-hyeon Lee is a psychiatrist specializing in sleep disorders.

“People are sleepwalkers. They go into the refrigerator and eat a lot of things unconsciously, even raw food. There have been cases of car accidents in central Seoul caused by a sleepwalker patient,” Lee says.Dr. Lee is used to seeing chronic insomniacs in his practice, who suffer from what is called hyperarousal (which causes brain activation and prevents us from sleeping well).Some of his patients tell him that they haven’t slept more than a few hours a night in decades.”They cry, but they still have hope (when they come to the clinic). It’s a very sad situation,” says the psychologist.

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Overwork, stress and drowsiness

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

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Couples sleep during a mass wedding in South Korea in 2017.
image caption,Sleep deprivation in South Korea tops global statistics.

In just a few decades, the country has gone from one of the poorest in the world to one of the most technologically advanced nations.Furthermore, through its growing influence in pop culture, it wields considerable “soft power” (a term used in international relations to describe the ability to influence actions or interests through cultural and ideological means).

Countries with a similar track record, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, might be able to take advantage of their natural resources, but South Korea has no such hidden riches.It has been transformed thanks to the dedication of a population animated by a collective nationalism which pushed it to work harder and faster.One of the results is that its staff are overworked, stressed and sleep deprived.Today, an entire industry has grown up around catering for those who cannot sleep; the sleep industry was estimated at US.5 billion in 2019.

Opposition leader sleeping in 2004
image caption,Collective nationalism drives many South Koreans to work long hours and sleep very little.

A booming industry

In Seoul, department stores sell sleeping pills, from the perfect sheets to the optimal pillow, while pharmacies offer shelves full of herbal remedies and sleep tonics.And then there are the technological approaches to insomnia. Just over two years ago, Daniel Tudor launched a meditation app, Kokkiri, aimed at helping stressed young South Koreans.

Although South Korea is historically a Buddhist country, young people view meditation as a pastime for the elderly, not something an office worker in Seoul might do. Daniel says he had to “reimport” and “repackage” meditation as a Western idea, for young Koreans to find it appealing.More traditional institutions are also embarking on the adventure.Hyerang Sunim is a Buddhist monk who helps run retreats at a temple outside Seoul where sleep-deprived people can meditate and absorb Buddhist teachings.

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A group of men and women sit cross-legged in front of a monk in a sparsely decorated room in a Buddhist temple.
image caption,Buddhist temples, which often hold sleep retreats, are criticized for taking advantage of people with sleep disorders.

In the past, these mini-offices were reserved for retirees who wanted to receive teachings and prayers. Today, the participants tend to be young South Koreans of working age.But these same Buddhist temples have also been criticized for profiting from these retreats.

“Of course, there are concerns…but I think the benefits outweigh,” Hyerang Sunim said.”Traditionally, it was rare to see young people coming for Buddhist teachings. Now they get great benefit from their interactions with the temple stay,” Sunim adds.

The need for fundamental change

Lee Hye-ri, who attended such a Buddhist retreat when the pressure at work became unbearable, says she learned to take responsibility for her stress.”It all starts with me, all my problems start with me. That’s what I learned here,” she explains.But viewing the solution to stress and lack of sleep as a problem to be solved on an individual level can be problematic.Blaming individuals for their lack of sleep can have negative consequences, some experts say.

Commuters sleep in the Seoul subway in 1998.
image caption,Commuters sleep in the Seoul subway in 1998.

Those who believe the problem is due to an unreasonable work culture and social pressures have criticized this individualistic approach. They feel that it comes down to blaming the victims.These critics argue that meditation or relaxation is just a band-aid, and that real solutions can only come from fundamental changes in society.

Ji-Eun ended up being so sleepy and stressed that she decided to quit her job.She now works with much more reasonable hours, as a freelancer and, due to the pandemic, she can work from home. She also sought professional help from Dr. Lee’s sleep clinic to manage her insomnia.”What’s the point of working so hard now that we’ve reached such a high level as a country? We should be able to relax,” Ji-Eun said.

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