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Insomnia: what to do when sleep eludes you

Eyes wide open. Mind in full steam. The hands on the clock seem to be moving in slow-mo. Despite what Nora Ephron will have you think, there's nothing glamorous about a sleepless night.


Illustration of someone sleeping in bed

We asked the TalkLife community about their experience with insomnia and sleep issues. Rose, Dany, Pradyumna, Winnie, Powder, and Raquel shared their stories.


What’s insomnia?


Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep. It also includes waking up too early and not being able to fall back asleep. It can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) and can have a significant impact on your overall wellbeing.


In Powder’s words, insomnia is like going to a theme park as a child. “You're wide awake, hyper peppy, not wanting to miss out on anything even when your body is telling you to recharge. Sometimes, you really are exhausted but, like a computer, you can't shut down. Everything is uncomfortable.”


That boost of energy makes it difficult to switch to “sleeping mode,” and can even become a vicious circle when you start getting active at night. For Dany, it can even feel like freedom. “Who's going to be up all night bothering you, asking you to do tasks around the house or run errands? It's peaceful.”


Where are sleep troubles coming from?


The causes of insomnia can vary. Dany’s insomnia was triggered by a tragic event at a young age, while Raquel struggles to sleep when she’s anxious, and Pradyumna does when he feels sad or left out. For Winnie, it’s irregular sleeping habits that did it. “It initially started because of procrastination from school work – I had to stay up late to complete it since I struggled with gaming addiction back then. [...] It screwed up my body clock.”


Potential causes of insomnia can include:

  • Stress and anxiety

  • Poor sleep habits

  • Stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol

  • Medical conditions such as chronic pain

  • Certain medications

  • Environmental factors such as noise, light, and temperature


Insomnia and mental health


Struggling with insomnia and sleep troubles can impact your mental health in several ways.


Increased risk of depression


Insomnia can disrupt normal sleep patterns, which can lead to changes in mood and an increased risk of developing depression.


Higher levels of anxiety


Sleep troubles can trigger feelings of anxiety, making it increasingly difficult for people with insomnia to relax and fall asleep. For Pradyumna, “overthinking plays a big role in [insomnia]” as both a cause and a consequence.


Impaired cognitive function


Chronic insomnia can lead to cognitive impairment, including problems with memory, attention, and concentration. Rose links her sleep problems to ADHD and defines insomnia as a “very debilitating condition that can drive you absolutely insane.”


For Winnie, insomnia feels like “having no sense of control over your body. It feels like you're losing out on everybody's life because you sleep when people are active, and vice versa. You feel dissociated from everybody, including your own body.”


Decreased quality of life


Sleep issues can impact a person's overall quality of life, affecting their ability to perform daily activities and enjoy social interactions. In Rose’s words, “it hinders your daily life heavily and also makes you feel alone.”


Increased risk of substance abuse


People with insomnia may turn to drugs or alcohol to help them sleep, which can lead to addiction and further mental health issues.


If you are experiencing symptoms of insomnia, it's important to speak with a healthcare professional to identify the underlying causes and develop a treatment plan.


Overcoming insomnia


Different people have different needs, and there’s unfortunately no miracle cure for insomnia yet. That being said, there are a few things you can try to improve your quality of sleep. Here are our experts and the community’s top tips to help alleviate insomnia.


Establish a regular sleep routine


Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This can help regulate your body's natural sleep-wake cycle.


Pradyumna finds it also helps to daydream in bed to doze off more easily. “I create a scenario like I'm in a movie or living my dream. It takes my mind off the sad things and stops the overthinker inside me.”


Create a relaxing sleep environment


Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, quiet, and free from distractions, especially screens. Raquel recommends using essential oils, practicing breathing methods, and listening to music to create a soothing environment.


Practice relaxation techniques


Techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or visualization can help calm your mind and body before bed. Dany uses coloring to relax before bed. “I love to just color in and listen to music, even just [instrumental] music. It's relaxing and calming.”


Powder also recognizes the power of music and meditation. “Music and soundscapes have helped. If my brain isn't ready to sleep, I read a book, or do a calming activity such as meditation until I'm relaxed enough to drift off.”


Limit caffeine and alcohol intake


Avoid consuming caffeine or alcohol, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime. It might seem like alcohol in particular can help you fall asleep faster, but it’s actually negatively impacting your quality of sleep.


Avoid napping


If you have trouble falling asleep at night, avoid napping during the day, which can interfere with your ability to sleep at night.


Exercise regularly


Regular exercise can help promote better sleep, but avoid exercising close to bedtime. Winnie tried exercising daily to get physically tired enough to sleep, and says it “kind of helps” with her insomnia.


Avoid screen time before bed


The blue light emitted by electronic devices like phones or laptops can interfere with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep.


Consider talking to your doctor


If insomnia persists, consider talking to your doctor about any treatment options that might be suitable for you. That might include therapy or treatment options to address any underlying causes of insomnia, such as anxiety or depression.


For Rose, it was a necessary step. “I'm now on very low-dosed antidepressants and it changed my life. I also make sure to only lay in bed to sleep and keep a regular cycle.”


Need someone to talk to in the middle of the night? Join the TalkLife community to connect and share with others around the world.


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