Sleep: How to Deal with Insomnia
About eight years ago, I found myself descending into the hell of insomnia. I frequently had extreme difficulty getting to sleep, and woke up often during the night. I would often have to get by on four hours of sleep a night, and I could not nap during the day. This lasted for over a year and a half, and at its worst, I took an Ambien, a melatonin, and a diphenhydramine to get to sleep. I saw five different doctors, including two sleep specialists, who could not diagnose the cause. It wasn't until I visited a regular family practitioner who, through a broad-spectrum blood test, diagnosed a hormone problem and took me off birth control, that the insomnia went away. I still have occasional "sleep issues," but I have developed effective coping strategies that make it much less of an issue.
Insomnia is technically defined as having difficulty falling asleep, waking multiple times during the night, or waking up too early two or more times a week. Chronic insomnia is any combination of these problems for more than three weeks in a row. Some experts define insomnia by its causes, which can vary from psychological, medical, circadian, or inherited factors. It hasn't been until recently that other experts have recognized that it can exist as a disorder in and of itself, and began to treat it appropriately. Overall, even given the rising number of sleep centers and developing technology available to diagnose the problem, the difficulty is still in determining the cause and appropriate treatment.
There are a variety of medicinal and homeopathic treatments, many of which I've tried, and plenty of publications that claim to know the secrets of solving it, many of which I've read. No More Sleepless Nights, by Doctors Peter Hauri and Shirley Linde was a particularly helpful book, but it has really been through a long process of trial-and-error that I have found that there are a variety of things one can actually do to lessen insomnia's hold on one's life. These tips are not rocket science or new techniques; rather, they are my takes on what the experts suggest.
How to Handle Insomnia
Don't underestimate the environment in which you sleep. You may think that the level of noise around you— whether it be freeway noise, a husband watching TV, or a passing train—doesn't make that much difference, or that you can tune it out, but it may be more of a problem than you think. Try sleeping in a different space in your house or using earplugs to see if that makes a difference. Also, I have found that pure subconscious association of a certain sleeping spot with difficulty sleeping can perpetuate insomnia. So I will sleep sideways on the bed, on top of the covers, on the floor, on the couch, or in a different bed entirely for up to a week and I have found it can make a big difference.
Pay close attention to what you do and eat in the hour or two before you go to bed. It goes without saying that caffeine is a stimulant. Many insomniacs get caught in the cycle of drinking more cups of coffee than they normally would to get through sleep-deprived days, and then they aren't able to sleep due to over-stimulation. I used to think that having chocolate or candy right before bed wouldn't make a difference. Turns out it does. Old habits are hard to break, though, so instead I have a piece of toast with apricot jam or a bowl of low-sugar cereal.
Hide the clock. Just being aware of what time it is makes you automatically count how many hours of potential sleep you have left, and increases the pressure to sleep. Increasing pressure to sleep is a sure way to drive it away.
Push your way through "nap days." This, of all things, has been one of my most effective techniques for battling insomnia, but one of the least discussed by any expert I read. If you start thinking about all the things you probably won't be able to get done because you'll be too sleep-deprived, you subconsciously increase the pressure on yourself to sleep. If you consistently are able to make yourself have a relatively normal day, even when you're sleep-deprived, the likelihood that you'll stress about having a bad day after a night of insomnia will go down, and so will the pressure to get to sleep.
Don't "try" to go to sleep. I wholeheartedly agree with the experts on this one. Sleep is a lot like love; it rarely comes when forced. Though it may seem counterintuitive to get up and watch TV or do a crossword puzzle when you're incredibly tired, it often helps break the mental cycle your brain gets trapped in when trying to sleep.
Ultimately, everyone is different and what works for one person may not work for someone else. However, these techniques have stood the test of time and expert scrutiny.
Do you have difficulty sleeping at night? What do you do to help yourself get to sleep?
Featured image courtesy of Flickr.