24 November 2014

Can't sleep, won't sleep

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
One consequence of suffering from anxiety is that I also experience chronic insomnia. While some people may have difficulty falling, or staying, asleep, and others find themselves waking too early, I experience all three problems...often on the same night.

My main obstacle to falling asleep is the mental vacuum created by bedtime. When nothing else is occupying my mind - be it work, writing or simply an absorbing television programme - my current worries flood in to fill it. I replay that day's confrontations, fret about challenging events to come, plan my future; anything but still my mind ready for sleep.

Listening to the local talk radio station, on a very low volume, is a great way to counter this void. Providing an alternative focus deflects anxiety-inducing thoughts and usually I don't even realise I'm drifting off until I wake an hour later. Unfortunately, by the time I've turned the radio off and put in my earplugs, I'm as wide-awake as when I first went to bed.

Outside causes certainly contribute to my repeatedly waking up. Even with earplugs, flat-living can be noisy: from the front door slamming at all hours, to upstairs' neighbours thudding about like clog-wearing elephants. Once I'm awake, anxieties immediately crowd into my head, to prevent the return of sleep. 

I do know that my 'sleep hygiene' could be better: I always eat late and am usually still doing chores until just before I go to bed. No wonder my body doesn't know what's going on, when it suddenly finds itself horizontal and stationary. 

Although the problem is mostly in my head, I've tried all the usual physical tricks, in a bid to alleviate the situation: avoiding stimulants, using herbal medications, sprinkling lavender on my pillow, and so on. Nothing has ever provided a guaranteed solution. Comparing notes with a fellow insomniac, she told me she sometimes sleeps best after indulging in a 'perfect [insomniac's] storm' of wine, coffee and chocolate. There seems no rhyme or reason as to what might help or hinder sleep.

The combination of insomnia and anxiety creates a classic vicious circle. Anxiety stops me sleeping, which leaves me exhausted and less able to cope with the stresses of the day, which exacerbates my anxiety and renders sleep even harder to find. 

After a few days of particularly bad sleep, I then also become anxious about the fact that I'm not sleeping. That anxiety causes my heart to race as soon as I lie down and is made worse by the subsequent middle-of-the-night clock-watching and constant recalculations of 'How much sleep I'll get if drop off right now'.

As a youngster, I frequently complained to my parents about being unable to sleep, which means I've endured more than 40 years of sleep deprivation. On any given day, I am either tired, really tired, or exhausted. The fatigue makes me irritable and unable to concentrate, and saps me of the energy I need to make the most of my waking hours. I often wonder what kind of a person I might have been, and how different my life, without insomnia. 

Of course, until I address the underlying cause - once and for all - I'm destined never to find out.

* * *

Do you suffer from insomnia? If so, what - if anything - helps you to sleep?

10 comments:

Lindsay said...

I sympathize with you. Although my insomnia is for a different reason (thyroxin related) the worry about not sleeping is, in itself, a problem. I do find lavender oil helps me relax into sleep but the two most important things for me is a form of mindfulness - like the one Ruby Wax mentioned - and also ensuring as much as possible) that I'm neither too cold nor too hot. Mindfulness is certainly worth pursuing as you actively focus on something rather than trying to not focus!

helen said...

I often don't sleep well. For me it's muscle spasm or pain. However, I sometimes lie there hoping I'll be ok, which feeds the idea that I might not, which feeds sleeplessness.
Mindfulness could help. Have you tried a full 8 week course? It takes more than a book or a one off session to learn it. Once learned, the brain changes in structure and you never know... sleep may happen. I'd recommend MBSR. Mindfulness based stress reduction. Let me know if you'd like to know more : )

cristina said...

So relieved there was no mention of the next door neighbours keeping you awake. My heart starts pounding every time Ella starts crying...

ocdtalk said...

Sorry you have this problem, Helen, and I can relate, as I often deal with bouts of insomnia. At least mine comes and goes.........

Helen Barbour said...

Lindsay, like you, I take great care with my physical environment - I need it to be completely dark and also cool - and use lavender oil on my pillow. I think you are right that it is important to have a focus for your mind. On the 'to do' list for 2015 is to enrol in a mindfulness course!

Helen Barbour said...

Helen, thank you for your offer of advice, and see above - the course I'm looking at is actually 8 weeks long and there is one starting just before I am scheduled to leave my job through redundancy, so that will be very timely! A new job, a new me - hopefully.

Helen Barbour said...

Cristina, please rest assured I haven't heard a whisper from next door since the adorable Ella entered your life, so please don't worry! And your upstairs' neighbours deserve it, after all the racket they've inflicted on you...

Helen Barbour said...

ocdtalk, thanks for your kind words.

knowingchristie said...

I haven't got an insomnia, but my mother did. Only after many years was she able to win over it and she would never tell me how. Not until I realised the link between insomnia and a childhood trauma. When she blurted it out, I could not begin to imagine what she'd been through.

Helen Barbour said...

knowingchristie, I'm glad to hear that your mother managed to resolve her insomnia, in spite of the trauma she suffered - with so many people leading troubled lives, there must be a lot of sufferers out there.