“I never feel that refreshed feeling you want out of a night’s sleep. I can’t even remember what that feels like,” says Sophie Eggleton, from Surrey. “Often I’m already awake when the alarm goes off, and it only serves as a reminder that I’ve managed to get through another night without falling asleep, and it’s now time to crawl out of bed and shower.”
Having suffered sleepless nights for more than a decade, Sophie is among the 10% of the population who suffer from chronic insomnia, while around 30% of us will experience insomnia for a shorter period at some point in our lives.
According to psychologist Dr Vikki Powel, a Counselling Directory member, while we all have periods of poor or disturbed sleep, insomnia refers to regular difficulty with getting to sleep, which can include waking after initially falling asleep. “For a clinical diagnosis of insomnia, individuals typically experience these symptoms three times a week, and for six months or more,” she tells HuffPost UK. “A brief period of sleep difficulty can be a very normal response to a particularly distressing - or exciting - period or event in your life. But insomnia is when your body does not return to normal after this period, or events that disturb sleep pattern are prolonged.”
At its worst, insomnia can be debilitating, causing extreme fatigue and preventing sufferers from completing basic daily activities, which often leads to distress. For Sophie, this includes memory loss, such as forgetting people’s names. “There’s also been plenty of times I’ve worn clothes inside out and strangers on the tube have let me know,” she says. “I’ve put my debit card pin code into microwave. I’m always extremely clumsy and dropping things which always drives partners and family members mad - they often mutter ’what’s the matter with you?’ as I spill, trip over, drop and crash things.”
[READ MORE: Insomnia: what is it and why do we suffer from it?]
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The causes of insomnia can vary from stress and anxiety, noise, an uncomfortable bed, shift work, caffeine, an underlying health condition or a combination of factors. In fact, Dr Powel says one of the most frustrating things about insomnia for many sufferers is that they struggle to pin point the cause. This is the case for Sophie, who doesn’t know exactly what started her sleepless nights, but noticed they worsened during a period of stress.
“It was a combination of all the negative and worrisome voices in my head, heart palpitations as a result of anxiety, and bad IBS, that would ensure I would get very little, if any sleep,” she says.
As a freelance presenter, blogger and YouTuber, Sophie is often juggling multiple work commitments, which can be challenging when she’s experiencing extreme tiredness. She “beats herself up” when she feels she hasn’t completed a job to the best of her ability.
“This week has been one of those weeks where I’ve felt completely hopeless about my situation, and have been on the verge of tears the whole time. When you’re tired your ability to cope crumbles, and then you feel angry at yourself for being such an emotional wreck. It’s an endless domino effect,” she says. “I hate letting other people down, or giving them the impression I can’t cope.”
Almara Abgarian, 28, experiences insomnia “off and on” and, like Sophie, says it has affected her work life in the past. “When I worked the usual nine to five life and the insomnia was very bad, I’d stay up until 3-4am. When the alarm went off at 6am, I felt like crying. I’ve always been a motivated person and worked a lot of jobs with long hours, but I don’t function very well on no sleep. I was exhausted and cranky,” she explains.
Now, Almara, from London, works as a freelance journalist and PR consultant and the flexibility of being her own boss has taken some of the pressure off from sleeping. However, she still has periods of troubled sleep, which she believes are linked to the anxiety she feels about not getting sleep. “It’s a vicious circle,” she explains. “I feel anger with myself about not being able to sleep. I remember one night back in 2015, my ex-boyfriend had to calm me down in the middle of the night because I was so exhausted and sleep-deprived, I couldn’t stop crying.”
When her insomnia was at its worst, Almara felt nauseous because of the lack of sleep and as a result, wasn’t able to eat properly because she “just wasn’t in the mood for food”. Almara admits she wasn’t “pleasant to be around” during this time, which is something Louise Waters, from Brighton, can relate to.
The 51-year-old, who runs a PR consultancy, has never been a heavy sleeper, but started suffering with insomnia when she was expecting twins 14 years ago. “Once they were born, my sleep was so disrupted I’ve never been able to sleep properly since,” she says. “I wake up most mornings at around 3am and lie awake for at least an hour - sometimes longer- before being able to go back to sleep. My poor family can sometimes get the brunt of it as I can be really irritable for no good reason.”
Louise is yet to find a method that consistently helps her insomnia, but says reading a read a book until she drops off again sometimes helps. Meanwhile Almara finds wearing earplugs at night and making time to go to the gym in the evening helps. For Sophie, meditation coupled with lavender pillow sprays can sometimes ease the stress and anxiety she believes are the root cause of her insomnia.
For those struggling with insomnia, Dr Vikki Powel shares these tips:
:: Accept that we all have individual variations in our sleep need and sleep drive – tune in to yours, are you better sleeping early or later, how much do you need to feel restored?
:: Know that it is a normal pattern of sleep to wake briefly four-five times in the night, typically after the repeating pattern of light sleep, deeper sleep, REM sleep. This cycle repeats approximately every 90 minutes.
:: Reduce stimulation from screen time, food, alcohol and caffeine. Exercise regularly and develop a robust ‘wind down’ routine for the hour before trying to sleep.
:: Increase conditions for good sleep (often referred to as sleep hygiene) – these include having bedroom that is dark enough (get black out blinds), warm enough but not overly warm, protected from outside noises and buying sufficient pillows. This can extend to managing disturbance factors from partners, i.e. ear plugs or an eye mask if partner snores or reads.
:: Increase your relaxation, which can be helped through mindfulness, meditation, gentle music, and diaphragm breathing.
:: Allow yourself time before starting ‘wind down’ to write a list of worries or actions that may otherwise play on your mind.
:: Focus on sleep quality vs quantity.
:: If your insomnia is no longer attributable to a trigger event (which can range from a long-haul flight to a traumatic life event), seek help from a sleep specialist. Often these are psychologists and CBT therapists who can work with you on a 6-8 session basis.