How To Overcome Chronic Insomnia
Insomnia involves difficulty falling to sleep, maintaining sleep, waking too early, or experiencing unrefreshing sleep. It affects daytime performance by leading to impaired concentration, memory, reaction time and productivity, and it’s associated with increased absenteeism from work.
In the long term, chronic poor sleep, defined by having trouble sleeping for more than three nights per week for three months or more, can increase the risk of ill health, including depression and anxiety, weight gain, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, immune system suppression, stroke, and cardiovascular disease.
Almost everyone will experience transient insomnia, whereby they will sleep badly for a couple of weeks because of some form of life stress, and will then return to a normal sleeping pattern once the stress is resolved.
However, for a quarter of the UK population the problem can develop into a chronic condition lasting months, if not years. Here’s how this can happen: say, a person is having a stressful day at work, a situation that prevents them from falling to sleep. The next day, they start to feel anxious about whether or not they’ll be able to fall asleep, which inadvertently keeps them awake. Unfortunately, the more they fear the impact that lack of sleep could have on their life, the more they try to control it, and the more conditioned they become to feeling awake whenever they try to sleep.
Being trapped in the vicious cycle of insomnia could be likened to an endless battle of tug of war, whereby the harder you pull, the more severe your insomnia becomes.
All of the tips below are based on a new way of approaching insomnia known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). They are designed to help you let go of struggling with poor sleep and therefore re-train to your brain to sleep naturally once again.
Let go of the props
Follow a normal wind down routine every night to teach your body and mind that it’s time to sleep. Remember that sleep is a natural physiological process that can’t be controlled, and having a reliance on unnatural night-time rituals or props (e.g. warm baths and milk etc) can fuel sleep anxiety.
Worrying about poor quality sleep you’ve had in the past, or imagining how bad things will be in the future if you don’t sleep, will only help to increase night-time arousal levels. On the other hand, noticing things in the present moment, objectively and without judgment – like the touch of your duvet on your toes, or the gentle movement of air in and out your nose – can actually promote sleep.
Welcome thoughts and emotions
At night, fearful thoughts or strong sensations such as anxiety can keep you awake. Learning to change your relationship with such thoughts by getting to know them, and even welcoming them when they arrive, will reduce arousal levels and lessen your struggle to sleep.
Stay in bed
If you are awake at night, choose to stay in bed and conserve your energy by lying still and being calm and relaxed. Be mindful and welcome your thoughts and emotions; try not to struggle with them and don’t get out of bed to avoid them.
Keep on time
Go to bed and get up at roughly the same time each night. This will help keep your body clock on time and promote your natural drive to sleep. If you fancy a nap, limit it to less than 20 minutes.
Adopt healthy sleep habits
Live a healthy lifestyle that promotes sleep. For example, drink a moderate amount of caffeine and stop by 2pm. Limit alcohol consumption, especially close to bedtime. Exercise regularly during the day or early in the evening, but do it for enjoyment and health promotion, not so that it will help you sleep. Sleep in a cool, comfortable, quiet and dark room.
Live your life
The fear of not sleeping drives us to stop living our lives; it can make us avoid going out at night with friends, or drive us to sleeping in the spare room. Instead of constantly giving up things for your insomnia, claim them back. See if you can commit to taking small steps everyday that take you closer to what’s important to you in your life. A happy and content brain is a sleepy brain.