Most people have problems getting to sleep at times. However, some people struggle to get to sleep, or find it hard to stay asleep on a regular basis. This is often called insomnia, and it is something that affects different people in different ways.
How much sleep do people need?
It’s commonly said that we all need ‘our 8 hours’ of sleep. Certainly this as about average for most. However people vary, and whilst some may feel they need less sleep, others will feel better with more. How much sleep we need depends on how stressed we are feeling, how busy we are during the day, our age (teenagers sleep a lot!) and our physical health.
What can interfere with good sleep?
Feeling worried or anxious can stop people from falling asleep, or getting back to sleep if they wake up. Some medications, alcohol and drugs can also interfere with sleep – for example, we know that alcohol can make us feel sleepy but it does not lead to a restful night.
Where we sleep is important – rooms should not be too hot or too cold, or too light.
What types of sleep problems are there?
Problems include getting to sleep – just not being able to drift off, staying asleep – waking during the night and being unable to get back to sleep, restless nights, where people wake up several times at night, and early wakening – waking up at a very early time and not being able to get back to sleep.
What can I do to help myself?
The most important thing is to think about why you have a sleep problem. Consider the points above – is it because of worry?
The patterns we have before going to bed can be important. Relaxing activities like having a bath or reading a book can help people to get off to sleep. Playing video games or watching action films is probably not helpful! Make sure the sleeping place is the right temperature and that there’s not too much light.
Try to go to bed at roughly the same time each night and to get up at the same time each morning – a routine like this can help.
Try to avoid nicotine other stimulants right before bedtime.
Finally, don’t let not being able to sleep become the worry that keeps you awake! No-one is awake for ever, and worrying about it will make the problem worse.
Real life experience
Not being able to sleep was like a form of torture for me. I would lie awake for hours thinking about everything and anything that came into my mind. I would get caught up in distressing thoughts, ruminating and replaying upsetting events over and over again. Everything seemed 100 times worse in the night and small problems became massive catastrophic disasters that I couldn’t cope with. The harder I tried to push away my thoughts and get to sleep the harder it seemed to be. Lying awake when I knew everyone else was sleeping, wanting desperately to be sleeping too was a very lonely and distressing place to be. Not sleeping had a knock on effect the next day. I had problems with concentration and motivation and generally felt really unwell. I ended up being prescribed sleeping tablets which worked wonders; I was finally falling asleep and staying that way but now I had the problem of feeling hung over and groggy in the morning and also knowing I wouldn’t be able to stay on them in the long term.
It took a long time, a lot of commitment and hard work to finally get into a natural sleeping pattern where I was able to fall asleep without medication, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed. The first things I did to help were trying to relax in the evening, reading a book in bed rather than using my phone or tablet. I learnt mindfulness techniques to use when I went to bed. Now instead of fighting all the thoughts I was having I became able to acknowledge that they were there, neither holding on to them nor pushing them away which helped me to stop getting caught up in them. I also used following or counting my breath as something to focus on. Waking in the night with horrendous worries or distressing thoughts was another problem I was able to solve by learning to tell myself that things always seem worse in the middle of the night and that there was nothing I could do to sort anything out until the morning so I might as well go back to sleep in the hope things would be more manageable in the morning which invariably they were. It was not a quick fix but over time things have really improved.