For anyone who's ever suffered from insomnia, they'll know it's far more than just a bad night's sleep. For this week's Mental Health Mondays blog, we're handing over to Neuroscience Student at King’s College London & Mental Health advocate, Ella Stanley who's sharing what it's really like to struggle with insomnia.
We all know the feeling; your alarm goes at 6 am and as you stir from a deep sleep you hope that the bleeping clock beside you is merely a manifestation of your imagination. Only it is indeed your alarm, reminding you that life must go on despite the Netflix marathon you completed last night. For most, tiredness hits mid-afternoon and you begin to romanticise over catching up on your sleep with an early night. However, for fellow insomniacs out there, getting the recommended eight to ten hours’ sleep isn’t quite that simple…
Insomnia first entered my life during my early teens as a consequence of illness. Unfortunately, as my health improved my sleep didn’t follow suit and I quite literally lost the ability to fall asleep without experiencing intense waves of anxiety. During my late teens, the severe lack of sleep started to make its way into my everyday life as I struggled with intense, regular panic attacks. I was so sleep deprived that everything and anything could trigger underlying anxiety and throw me into panic; it was my body’s way of saying ‘I need sleep, and I need it now’.
I decided to seek help, initially not for insomnia but for the panic attacks, however, when I turned up at my first therapy appointment and described my relationship with sleep it became clear that my insomnia was a big issue and my inability to sleep was far more complex than a confused circadian rhythm. I began to untangle the reasoning behind my fear of sleep and with help from my therapist I came up with better ways to approach bedtime.
One of my main issues around sleep was a fear of isolation - the more time I had to myself to think about going to sleep, the more time I had to work myself up and reaffirm the idea that I couldn’t sleep. No one likes doing things they’re inherently bad at, especially when no progress is being shown, and what worked for me the best contradicted the advice of many articles I had read online.
So, for those who also struggle with sleep, these are my five tips to combat insomnia:
Go And See Your GP
Before you start trying to tackle your insomnia I highly recommend going to see your GP as they can consider your history and check that there aren’t any underlying medical conditions disrupting your sleep cycle. If your insomnia is intense they may recommend going down a pharmaceutical route and prescribe medication to help induce sleep or refer you to a sleep specialist. As with always, medication comes with side effects so it’s important to talk this through with your GP before seeking medication elsewhere.
Don’t Go To Bed Too Early
If you get anxious about sleep or worry that you won’t be able to sleep getting into bed an hour or two before you plan to actually go to sleep can just facilitate spiralling anxieties and further extenuate the problem. Instead, try only going to bed when you’re really tired and don’t hang about, establish a quick pre-bed routine and stick to it (I wash my face, brush my hair and teeth, put my PJ’s on and get into bed pronto).
Use A Sleep Mask
This small change has really helped me. There is something very comforting about the gentle pressure sleep masks apply to your face, not to mention that they shut out any unwanted light.
Listen To Audiobooks
When choosing an audiobook, it’s important you don’t go for a storyline that’s too captivating. I often listen to the same audiobook time and time again to ensure I’m not being kept awake by a gripping plot twist. I also find the voice of the reader really important when deciding what book to listen to. The softer, more comforting the voice, the better.
Don’t Go To Bed Hungry
It’s often recommended not to eat just before you go to bed and although I agree that it’s not good to go to bed on a full stomach, trying to sleep when you’re hungry is a mission. I love having a banana smoothie or protein shake in the summer and hot chocolate in the winter. I find a milk-based drink is filling enough to tide me over but not heavy enough to stop me sleeping.
As with all things, what works for you will be different to what works for someone else and unfortunately trial and error is fundamental to figuring out the sweet spot in your sleep-routine. If you’re struggling with your sleep my greatest advice would be to talk. Often insomnia manifest from difficulties elsewhere in your life and it's important to address these issues first and foremost.