Insomnia…What can you do to get a better night sleep?

Lack of sleep can be a real issue for people and can often increase feelings of depression and anxiety in sufferers. The brain needs to fall below a certain level in conscious activity before it switches over to this restorative trance state and daily stress and worry can stop this from happening, which can lead to the sufferer becoming less able to cope or find the energy to improve their condition.

About 30 per cent of the population has disturbed sleep and 10 per cent meet the diagnostic criteria for insomnia. Insomnia is difficulty in falling asleep or staying asleep, even when the person has the chance to do so. At some point, most of us have experienced acute insomnia; for example, the night before an exam, worrying about finances or experiencing jet lag. It commonly tends to resolve without treatment.  Insomnia is considered chronic if it happens at least three nights a week for three months or longer. The consequences of chronic insomnia are varied and include impaired cognitive function, poor quality of life, increased incidence of bodily pains, poor general health, decreased job performance and increased risk of accidents.

Insomnia can be triggered by medical or psychiatric issues. Many cases of insomnia start with an acute episode, then evolve into long-term problems. The reasons for this can be varied such as worries at work or in the home, drinking alcohol before bedtime or an interruption in sleep cycles such as shift work. Once the problem becomes more chronic, worries and concerns such as “I will never sleep” start to become associated with bedtime, which reinforces the cycle of insomnia.

This is why it is important to address insomnia instead of letting it become the norm. If you have trouble sleeping on a regular basis, it is a good idea to review your sleep habits. Simple steps to improve sleep include:

  • Set a regular pattern of sleep by going to bed at a similar time each night when you are generally feeling tired.
  • Avoid bright light before bedtime, use dim light in the bathroom and bedroom and avoid back lights in reading devices.
  • Keep your bedroom well ventilated and avoid synthetic covers and duvets that can cause overheating.
  • Sound and light are likely to keep you awake and reduce the quality of sleep. You may fall asleep in front of the television but the irregularity of the sound and light will interfere with the lighter stages of sleep.
  • Reading helps you feel sleepy as it mimics the sideways eye movements found in REM sleep.
  • Begin rituals that help you relax each night before bed. A few minutes of reading or a warm bath are two ideas. Practice simple breathing exercises and disconnect from close-range electronic devices (laptops, phones) that can disrupt your sleep.
  • Get up at the same time, within reason, every morning, even on weekends and holidays.
  • Avoid taking naps. If you must take a nap, keep it short (less than one hour) and avoid napping after 3 p.m.
  • No caffeine after lunch, no alcohol within six hours of your bedtime.
  • No smoking before bedtime. Nicotine is stimulating.
  • Avoid heavy exercise within six hours of your bedtime.
  • No big meals near bedtime.
  • Assign “worry time” earlier in the day.
  • If you do wake up in the night remember that your body is still resting and repairing itself so just by staying relaxed and comfortable you are gaining valuable rest. Use the time to create some positive feelings by imagining you are in a wonderfully calm and peaceful place. Using pictures links you back to dreamlike states so try and really see where you are, avoiding words and full sentences.

Hypnotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which include psychological and behavioural techniques, can also be used to treat insomnia. Hypnotherapy and CBT challenge unhealthy beliefs and fears around sleep and teaches rational, positive thinking. Relaxation training, breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation and guided imagery can help to calm the mind and induce sleep. Exercise and body-mind work, such as yoga, can also be very helpful. Some of these techniques can be self- taught, while for others it is better to work with a trained therapist.