One of the most common sleep disorders, insomnia affects around 36% of people in the UK. We’d bet that most people have encountered it from time to time, lying awake at night, feeling tired, but being unable to sleep. It’s bad enough like that, but what if you experience this regularly? Eventually, you might suffer from more serious effects and sleep deprivation, which makes insomnia a big problem.
What Is Insomnia?
Put simply, insomnia is a condition where you find it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or both. It can be chronic, happening a lot during the week and lasting for months at a time, or acute, which is when it comes and goes, but usually does not last more than a few days or weeks. Since most healthy adults require at least 7 hours of sleep each night, it’s important to know what insomnia is, as a lot of bouts can lead to:
- Daytime fatigue or drowsiness
- Depression, anxiety, or irritability
- Difficulty concentrating or working
- Higher tendency for accidents or mistakes
- Accompanying health problems, like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Types And Causes Of Insomnia
There are two different types of insomnia, depending on what causes it:
- Secondary insomnia is when it appears as a symptom of a medical condition, mental illness, or substance use. In a lot of cases, it can be resolved by treating the primary cause.
- Primary insomnia is when there isn’t another health condition or mental disorder behind the condition. Sometimes we don’t know what causes insomnia, but it can often be the result of stress or poor sleep hygiene. We’ll discuss some insomnia treatments and techniques to help your sleep later.
According to the Sleep Foundation, the most common causes of insomnia include:
- Stress. When we experience stressful life events or undergo trauma, your body may react both physically and mentally, becoming overly stimulated and unable to settle down for sleep.
- An irregular sleep schedule. Often when you don’t keep to regular sleeping schedules, your circadian rhythm will be disrupted. This stops your body from knowing when to sleep and when to wake, which leads to insomnia.
- Lifestyle habits. Certain activities, including using electronics, napping, or eating a heavy meal, close to bedtime can make it more difficult to fall asleep at night. Consuming too much caffeine or alcohol use can also play a part in causing insomnia.
- Mental health conditions. Secondary insomnia is commonly a symptom of depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.
- Illness or pain. Pain can be a trigger for insomnia (and some pains can be made worse by an uncomfortable mattress). On top of this, illnesses that affect the nervous or respiratory system can make it harder to sleep, too.
- Certain medications. You might find insomnia is a potential side-effect of certain medications. It’s also worth keeping in mind that some medication can cause drowsiness during the day, which can ruin a regular sleeping pattern.
- Neurological disorders. Diseases and disorders can cause insomnia. This can range from dementia to ADHD, and many others, which cause nighttime confusion, hyperarousal, or an irregular circadian rhythm.
- Other sleep disorders. You might also find insomnia symptoms from other sleep disorders. Sleep apnea, one of the most common conditions to do with sleep, commonly comes with insomnia, for example.
- Certain age ranges. Teens and the elderly (people over 60) tend to experience insomnia more than other age groups. People over 60 tend to suffer from more of the chronic conditions mentioned earlier, which means secondary insomnia is more likely. On the other hand, teenagers experience biological changes that may affect their circadian rhythms and regular sleep hours.
- Pregnancy. Another cause for secondary insomnia, pregnancy can cause sleep disruptions due to hormonal shifts and the physical changes from a growing baby. Pregnant women are more likely to get up in the middle of the night and experience physical discomfort while in bed.
Insomnia Treatments That Anyone Can Try
Since secondary insomnia comes from a medical or mental condition, it’s best to begin by treating the primary insomnia cause, helping you sleep better. In these cases, you should work with your doctor to address the root of the problem.
With acute, or primary, insomnia, there are a lot of insomnia treatments you can try from home using one, or a combination, of proven methods.
Hide Clocks And Digital Displays
Insomnia, and anxiety about insomnia, is a vicious cycle to fall into - and we’ve all been there. You’re lying awake at night trying to fall asleep, but constantly thinking about why you’re not falling asleep.
Keep a level head. It’s easy to start counting the hours and becoming too focused on how much sleep you’re losing. Resist the urge to check the time as you try to wind down. Cover your alarm or clock, put your phone or tablet away, and try out some of the following tips on how to fall asleep (when nothing else seems to work).
Stay Awake To Fall Asleep
Beating insomnia is a challenging mental game. You can try using reverse psychology, challenging yourself to try and stay awake longer, to trigger your body to fall asleep. This technique has been scientifically studied, and starts with you laying in bed with the lights out, keeping your eyes open, and focusing on just how easy it is to stay awake.
Keep this up even when you start to feel sleepy. Focus on staying awake for just a couple more minutes to make sure you don’t undo your hard work.
Put On Some Relaxing Music
Not everyone can sleep in total silence - you might become used to some noises over time and losing them can throw you off. A lot of sleep studies have found that calming music may promote sleep by helping your breathing and heart rate sync up to a melody, and it adds the background noise you’ve been used to. Try choosing something slow and rhythmic, and that won’t evoke much of an emotional response.
Try Different Relaxation Techniques To Beat Insomnia
Relaxation techniques can be a good insomnia treatment, and we have two methods that have proven very effective at helping people fall asleep quickly. Try them yourself by following a few simple steps:
The 4-7-8 Breathing Method
- Lie in bed on your back. Empty your lungs by exhaling through your mouth.
- Close your mouth and inhale as you count to 4.
- Hold that breath as you count to 7.
- Exhale with a ‘whoosh’ sound for a count of 8.
- Repeat the entire cycle 3 - 4 times (or less).
The Military Method Used by the US Army
- Lying on your back, relax all the muscles in your face. Breath slowly and deeply as you do.
- Continue down to your neck, shoulders, arms, and chest, releasing all muscle tension in those areas. Let all of these muscle groups go completely limp.
- Pause at this point for a deep, slow breath. Inhale and slowly exhale, relaxing your chest and stomach as you do.
- Continue releasing tension in your lower body. Let your buttocks, thighs, calves, ankles, and feet all relax. Imagine they’re slowly sinking into the mattress.
- At this point, clear your mind by picturing a calming place, such as a meadow with a blue sky above it. If your mind is still racing, try repeating to yourself “don’t think, don’t think, don’t think” for about 10 seconds.
We have to point out that you shouldn’t focus on finishing each method - you might find yourself drifting off before you can finish!
Write Down Your Thoughts
You’re not alone in replaying your day, or thinking about what’s coming up in the week when you try to sleep. If these thoughts are keeping you up, try writing them down. This is like talking out loud, as taking your thoughts out of your mind and putting them on paper where they can be organised and “stored” away is a way to process things stopping you from unwinding.
Starting a journal where you can recall the day’s events also means you won’t forget anything, and this can become part of your nighttime routine. If you can’t sleep because of what’s to come, a to-do list for the next day or week can help you feel better by seeing things in writing.
Pick Up A Physical Book
Reading a book (a physical book rather than an e-book) is known to reduce stress, making it a great way to wind down each night. The story can be a great distraction from whatever stress you have left over from the day.
Just be sure whatever you pick is not too thrilling or loaded with cliff-hangers - the idea is something you can easily put down when you feel tired.
Find And Go To A Happy Place
Another proven way to unwind every night is by thinking of a calm place in your mind. It can be somewhere you’ve been or a fantasy if you prefer.
For example, imagine lying in a hammock on a calm and peaceful beach. Concentrate on how all five senses feel, and what you can remember or imagine, such as the warm breeze, the gentle waves, the sunlight peeking through the treetops - the more detail the better. As you focus on all of these parts, you should start to feel more relaxed as the anxiety slips away.
Reduce Blue Light That Can Be An Insomnia Cause
Devices like your phone, computer, and TV, emit blue light that affects how much melatonin you produce, which is the hormone that tells your brain to sleep. When you’re lying awake, it can be almost instinctual to start checking emails, do some shopping, or scrolling through social media feeds.
Don’t do this. Put your electronics away before bed and leave them there. Mundane activities you can do before bed every night is a good insomnia treatment by conditioning your body to get ready to sleep. This can be reading a book, doing a crossword, or paying bills, for example.
Don’t Stay In Bed
One thing to avoid is creating a negative feeling with your bed or bedroom - especially if your insomnia lasts for multiple nights in a row. You might start feeling anxious, upset or annoyed at the sight of your bed if you can’t sleep.
If, after 20 minutes or so, you still can’t sleep, get out of bed and leave the room for a while. Try another activity from your routine to help lull you to a tired state and try again when you feel drowsy.
Finding The Right Insomnia Treatments
Insomnia can be a struggle for a lot of people, whether it lasts for a couple of nights, weeks or even months. If you can identify the cause, then it can be easier to find insomnia treatments that are effective and help you get the rest you need.
It’s important not to give up just because something doesn't work the first time. Your body needs to learn routines - and unlearn bad habits you might have picked up. Whatever you try and do to beat insomnia, make sure to give it a chance before moving on to the next idea. In time, you’ll find ways - and tips - that make it easier to fall asleep.
If you don’t feel like you’re making progress, don’t be afraid to seek help. Your GP might be able to identify the causes and other factors that might be interfering with your sleep. Book an appointment if:
- Changing your sleeping habits hasn’t worked
- You’ve had trouble sleeping for months
- Insomnia is affecting your daily life and making it difficult for you to cope.
Be open to anything they suggest, even if it’s something you’ve tried before. Having an expert help, like a doctor, can also give you peace of mind and help you relax.