Insomnia is a word that gets thrown about whenever we talk about sleep troubles. But do we really know what it means? Most people would characterise insomnia as the inability to sleep and, for some, it can feel like a relentless battle. The effects of insomnia can be debilitating and it is a growing issue, with The Sleep Council reporting over a quarter of us now suffer from insomnia. Here, the Insomnia Clinic discusses the condition and what can be done about it.

What is insomnia?

The NHS defines insomnia as ‘difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep for long enough to feel refreshed the next morning, even though you’ve had enough opportunity to sleep.’ We’ve all had those evenings where we’ve lay awake counting down the hours until we need to be up for work. For insomnia sufferers, this is a nightly occurrence. People who have insomnia may:

  • find it difficult to fall asleep
  • lie awake for long periods at night
  • wake up several times during the night
  • wake up early in the morning and not be able to get back to sleep
  • not feel refreshed when they get up
  • find it hard to nap during the day, despite feeling tired
  • feel tired and irritable during the day and have difficulty concentrating

It’s very common to experience these symptoms occasionally, and this won’t cause any lasting damage. However, long term suffering can cause major problems in a person’s life, such as a constant feeling of exhaustion, lack of concentration and severe mood swings which can result in mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.

Woman sleeping at desk

What causes insomnia?

Although we’re all different, research has shown that there is a distinct pattern to how sleep loss becomes chronic and insomnia develops. That pattern follows three stages.

Firstly a person may be more prone to sleep difficulty than others. They may be a naturally anxious person or struggle to ‘switch off’ at night. These factors would predispose somebody to insomnia.

There is also usually something that triggers an episode of insomnia. This could be a period of emotional stress like losing a loved one or going through a divorce. It could be a sudden change in the environment – for instance, a building site appearing nearby or it could be a simple as a cough and cold which disrupts your sleep pattern. These are all things that would lead most of us to lose some sleep but when things don’t return to normal, it can lead to insomnia.

As a result of the poor sleep, habits and behaviours develop which are intended to combat the effects of sleep loss but which end up making the problem worse.  We sleep during the day, we drink tea or coffee to try and stay alert and although these things can help us in the short term they make it more difficult to sleep at night. We start to spend more time in bed in order to get more sleep which disrupts our body clock making it harder to sleep well and that’s when we get trapped in the vicious cycle of insomnia.

Woman suffering with insomnia

What can I do to cure my insomnia?

The best way to begin your journey to getting better night’s sleep is to practice good sleep hygiene. With good sleep hygiene, we can develop some better habits, overcome some bad ones and begin to break the vicious cycle of insomnia. Although poor sleep hygiene itself is rarely a cause of insomnia, a good sleep hygiene routine can be used as a foundation for us to build on.

  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule by ensuring you go to bed and wake up at the same time daily- this will help to regulate your body clock which will improve your sleep pattern
  • Avoid napping during the day as this will ‘use up’ some of your sleep for night-time and make it harder to drop off. Instead, if you feel sleepy in the day, get some light exercise or fresh air to give you a boost until your normal bedtime.
  • Limit caffeine and nicotine in the hours before bedtime. These are stimulants and are likely to keep you awake. You should also avoid alcohol as although it can help you to drop off, it will negatively affect the quality of the sleep you get and leave you feeling even more tired the next day.
  • Avoid late meals. Your stomach will be working hard to digest these, which can keep you awake and cause heartburn
  • Turn off screens one hour before bedtime as the blue light emitted from screens can confuse your body into thinking it is still daytime by stopping the development of the sleep hormone; melatonin.

stethoscope and keyboard

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia

Research has shown that long-term sleep problems can be helped by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia (CBT-i). CBT-i teaches techniques to address the factors which are common in insomnia such a managing a ‘racing mind’ and learning how to overcome the worry associated with poor sleep. In addition, CBT-i helps those with poor sleep to learn how to create a healthy sleep routine by focusing on creating a strong connection between bed and sleep so that the person can essentially ‘re-learn’ how to sleep well again.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia is a structured programme that can be delivered either in face to face sessions by a trained therapist, online or via apps such as Sleepio. Unlike sleeping pills, CBT-i can help you to overcome the underlying causes of your sleep problems.

A recent study by Queen’s University in Canada showed a ‘medium to large’ improvement in the length of time taken to get to sleep after participants had received this type of therapy. This has since been cited by the NHS who concluded that ‘CBT delivered in primary care does indeed help people with insomnia get to sleep more quickly and spend less time lying awake after waking in the night’ and that ‘these effects last for several months to a year.’

What are your tips for beating insomnia? Leave your suggestions in the comments!