Insomnia is something which plagues many of us. It is a highly troubling and unpleasant phenomenon that leaves us unable to get to sleep. This then tends to make us more tired during the day of course, which then affects our enjoyment of all the day’s activities and our performance in all and any tasks. This can affect our mood, our memory and our general ability and can this way affect our careers and our relationships negatively. It can also cause a range of symptoms such as hallucinations and headaches. After all this you would then probably expect that when you got to a certain point of tiredness you would then be able to get a good night’s sleep, but it just never comes. That is the bitter irony with insomnia – no matter how tired you get you still will find it impossible to sleep. In fact the more tired you get and the more sleep deprived you become, the harder you will start to find it to sleep. This makes you toss and turn, and makes you start to feel as though you are the only person in the world who is not asleep as you lie there looking at the clock. It is a vicious cycle and it can seem like there is no end.
However, although it can seem very bad, there are many different things you can do to make sleeping easier and to combat your insomnia. By following certain advice you can start to break the pattern, getting yourself to relax psychologically and stimulating the release of sleep hormones – without the need for drugs and tablets.
The first thing you need to do is to create an environment that is conducive for sleeping in. One way to do this is to make sure that you make your bedroom a place ‘just’ for sleep. In other words you do not use your bedroom for socialising, and certainly not work, as this can make the room seem like psychologically an active place rather than one that you set as a place to work or be active. If you have a small house, rent just a room in a house, or have a studio flat with just one room, then this can be quite difficult as you do not have lots of space to both work and rest. This is particularly difficult for students as they will have just one small room to work and live in. One way you can combat this problem though is to get some curtains around your bed in order to bed able to ‘section’ off the area in which you sleep. Failing this you can at least kind of create a separate ‘section’ of your room by arranging the furniture to separate your working areas and sleeping areas. Another way to psychologically make yourself recognise your ‘bed time’ is to try and get some kind of routine – going to bed at the same time every night and forcing yourself to stay up or go to bed early to meet that time regardless of how tired you feel. Eventually your body will start to adjust to this time and you will find you start to feel tired when your bed time comes around and that you start to wake naturally at a certain time.
Of course the environment also needs to be very dark and very quiet. Again to an extent here you have to work with what you have got, but little touches can help to make your room darker and quieter that many people will not think of unless prompted. For example anyone with trouble with getting to sleep should invest in heavy curtains in order to block out more light, and getting netting underneath can really help too. Another source of light that many people allow into their room comes from VCRs, televisions and laptops – many of which have LED indicators to show that they are on. While this might not seem particularly bright it can all quite quickly add up and this will make the room much brighter and make it harder to see. Much worse are LED readouts such as those on alarm clocks and VCRs which add a lot more light to the room. Many of these you can turn off at the mains as the power lights tend to stay on when the devices are off. Of course with some electronics you will not want to turn them off at the mains because this can reset the clock and other aspects if they do not have solid state memory. In these cases then you can block out the light by standing picture frames and other objects in front of the lights. You would be surprised at what a difference going around and doing this where possible can make.
All of this helps your body to get the correct ‘external zeitgebers’. This is the scientific term used to describe the elements of the environment that tell our bodies what time it is, and the term translates literally as ‘external time givers’. These are then used in combination with our ‘internal pacemakers’ – the changes in our body chemistry – to set our body clocks and indicate to us when to go to sleep and when to wake up. After you have gone around setting your room up to be conducive to sleep then, you also need to spend time ensuring that you yourself are prepped for sleep.
One way to do this is with your body chemistry, and in particular the amount of melatonin in or bodies. This is the chemical that our body produces when it is time to sleep, and it is closely linked to our production of growth hormone, which is the chemical in the body designed to repair our bodies during sleep. Many sleeping tablets cause our bodies to produce these chemicals, but it is also possible to encourage your production of these chemicals by drinking glasses of warm milk before you go to bed, or by having a very hot shower. Do this just before you go to sleep then and you will find that your body is more relaxed and prone to drifting off.
Your activity during the day can of course also make you more relaxed and ready to sleep. In particularly cardiovascular activity and fresh air will make your body ready for relaxation and sleep, and as running can also stimulate the production of growth hormone; going for a run at some point during the day can be a good way to ensure that you feel relaxed during the night. Meanwhile you should of course avoid having any stimulants before bed, as these will speed up your system and make it difficult to relax and keep you from sleeping. Stimulants mean anything like caffeine, but also other herbal stimulants such as guarana which can be found in energy drinks and some chocolate bars. In fact it is better not to eat anything a few hours before you go to sleep if possible as this means you will not be digesting food when you are trying to relax. You also should not be too active with your body or mind as activity in general will increase your heart rate, and brain activity, both of which will make it more difficult for you to relax and switch off.
The most important change you need to make in order to sleep well though is to change the way you think about sleep. In particular you need to make sure that you do not stress about sleeping. Stress is highly obstructive when trying to get to sleep as it speeds p your whole body, producing fight or flight hormones such as adrenaline, increasing your heart rate and generally again making it much more difficult for you to relax and switch off – adrenaline is probably the worst chemical you can have in your body if you are trying to get to sleep or relax generally, especially if it makes you tremble. At the same time, stressing about getting to sleep will make you focus on it too much and like a watched pot that never boils this will make you far less likely to sleep. What you have to do instead then is to simply enjoy relaxing. Lie down, and enjoy this time with your thoughts and without having any pressure on you to do anything. Just lying down you will be getting a lot of benefit from resting and you should focus on making the most of this rather than being desperate to sleep.
In some cases your insomnia may be caused by specific health problems. In some cases for example it is possible to suffer insomnia as a result of apnea. This is when you stop breathing and this might be as a result of having a blocked throat or nose, or of having insufficient muscle tone around your neck (obstructive apnea). This causes you to wake constantly throughout the night, and that of course means that you do not sleep as heavily or as well and that you lose out a lot on the quality of your sleep. You may also wake and be unable to sleep again. Things like CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) can help solve this. However if you have ‘central’ apnea, this will mean that your body simply does not recognise the lack of oxygen in your blood and this has currently no cure.
Similarly your insomnia could be caused by a range of psychological problems, and if you are undergoing a lot of stress then this will make it difficult to sleep. Nightmares too can prevent many people from getting good quality sleep and these can come as a result of many psychological problems. Seeing a psychologist can help with many of these, and the tips above can help to get you to counteract some of the effects. Likewise, if you find that you are not sleeping because your mind is racing, or because you are mulling over certain topics, then it can really help to write these down somehow which can help take them off your mind. Some psychologists will teach their patients to imagine ‘locking away’ the bad or disruptive thoughts in order to deal with them at a later date. The idea is that they are still going to be there, but that they are now locked away where they can do no harm ready for the next day. Seeing a psychologist in general can help.
Insomnia might be a symptom of a more serious condition however, such as fatal familial insomnia that results in the permanent and unexplained inability to sleep. This is a highly rare condition and mostly runs in families so it is unlikely that you would be suffering from this, however it is certainly worth contacting a doctor initially in order to ensure that you do not have anything more serious. They can send you to a sleep clinic where your sleep will be monitored and potentially your brain activity and other elements that might be able to help you come to an understanding regarding your condition.