What’s keeping you awake at night?

Women with insomnia look very unhappy

The benefits of getting a good night’s sleep are well known. More energy, faster metabolism, improved concentration and better memory are just a few of the positives of getting the right amount of sleep. So what’s keeping you awake?keeping you awake: woman with insomnia in bed, awake

With one in ten healthy adults suffering from insomnia, it’s clear that not everyone is enjoying these benefits.

As an insomnia specialist, one of my missions is to educate people about just what constitutes a ‘good night’s sleep’. We’re fed lines from the media about eight hours being the norm, or the desirable amount, but this simply isn’t true for everyone. When it comes to sleep, it’s all about quality over quantity.

What exactly is insomnia?

One common myth is that insomnia means you struggle to get to sleep. While this is one definition, it also means difficulty staying asleep, constant early waking, or non-restorative sleep (where you don’t wake feeling refreshed). In the same way that good-quality sleep brings benefits, poor sleep patterns can start to really affect the way you function.

The good news is that insomnia is completely treatable. If you follow the treatment you always get better – it’s as simple as that.It’s natural for your sleep to be disturbed during times of stress or upheaval. But your sleep patterns should return to normal when things get back on an even keel. Insomnia is when you’ve suffered from poor sleep for a couple of weeks, and it won’t just go away on its own.

If you suffer from insomnia you may find your concentration levels are low, you feel tired all day and you start to get mood swings. Many people also start to become anxious about whether they’ll be able to sleep that night – which can lead to a vicious cycle, making it even harder to drop off.

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The good news is that insomnia is completely treatable. If you follow the treatment you always get better – it’s as simple as that.

The power of sleep

There’s a proven connection between sleep and mental health. While a good night’s sleep can help you stay balanced, poor sleep can have the opposite effect and you could find yourself in a downward spiral. You can end up feeling anxious and depressed, and many people start overeating and not exercising or socialising.

On the other hand, sleeping well will put you on an upward trajectory, and you’ll find you enjoy life more and can cope better with difficult situations.

Pop a pill?

People who suffer with insomnia can feel trapped. It’s common for them to think that the only way to get any respite is by using medication.

But be warned – over-the-counter medications can make things worse.

People might use sleeping pills, alcohol or other quick fixes to help, but these are only short term solutions.Sleeping aids are really just crutches. They make you focus more on the problem and you start to rely on them, feeling that you can’t do without them. They’re short-term relief for a long-term problem.

The best way to tackle insomnia is to learn new behaviours which will help you to almost immediately overcome insomnia, never again returning to your previous poor sleep patterns.

An example of a behaviour we take on when suffering from insomnia is to be in bed too long. We try to get more sleep by going to bed earlier, but it doesn’t work. It can just make us associate our bed with frustration.

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Our big sleep expectations

“I must get eight hours.” I hear this so often and it really is one of the biggest sleep myths around.

Some people need eight hours, some people need more. Others get by perfectly well on six hours. But by programming ourselves to believe we ‘need’ eight hours we’re just setting ourselves up to fail.

This is when bad sleep patterns can start. By worrying that we haven’t had enough sleep we are getting into a cycle of anxiety that turns into insomnia. You are far better going to bed a bit later and getting five or six good hours than forcing yourself to go to bed early and lying awake till 3am worrying.

How to tackle insomnia

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Insomnia (known as CBT-i) is the best, non-medical way, to beat your insomnia. It can help you reprogramme your behaviours and habits, helping you to overcome the underlying causes of your sleep problems.

Kick the caffeine habit. Most people know it’s best not to drink tea and coffee just before bedtime, but if you’ve had a poor night’s sleep it’s tempting to drink coffee all day to ‘wake you up’. But the stimulating effects of caffeine last up to four hours – and don’t forget fizzy drinks and cocoa can contain it too, so try to give these a miss before bedtime.

Keep the bedroom just for sleeping. Okay, and sex. But that’s it! No telly, laptop, iPad, work stuff, radio, food… basically, banish anything which will distract you from sleep (apart from your other half!).

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Only go to bed when you’re tired. If you’ve had a late night the previous night it seems to make sense to go to bed extra early. But in reality this simply doesn’t work and you’ll only end up lying awake fretting. Listen to your body and wait until you’re ready for bed.

Steer clear of alcohol. A nightcap to send you off to sleep is great in theory – and it probably will. The problem is that when the booze wears off your body starts to experience withdrawal and you’ll become restless and wake during the night. Try not to drink alcohol for 4-6 hours before bed and you should be fine.

Insomnia is a really debilitating condition and there’s no reason why anybody should put up with it.

By taking action and tackling the root causes of your sleep issues you’ll soon be enjoying a good night’s sleep… night after night after night.

*Updated March 2019

About Kathryn Pinkham

I'm an Insomnia Specialist, using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Insomnia to help people identify and change the causes of their sleep problems. I have a Masters Degree in Counseling, and worked as a Psychological Practitioner in the NHS, working with people with mild to moderate mental illnesses. I discovered that I loved working with people with sleep problems and it became my passion! Come and see me for an appointment, or we can chat on the phone or through Skype. You can find out more at The Insomnia Clinic.