The first time I had insomnia was truly one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. After all, sleep for many of us is just something we naturally do without thinking about; to suddenly lie down and find yourself unable to, staring at the ceiling as the minutes drag by and writhing under the bedcovers as you attempt to find a comfortable position, just leaves you confused and anxious. Why is it happening to me? What have I done to deserve this? How can I have lost such a basic ability that not only unites all humans, but most animals?
I was freaked out enough to knock on my housemate’s door and ask if they were having trouble sleeping (thankfully, being the night owls third year students are, they were still awake themselves, pondering over notes for an impending essay). It’s never been that bad since; instead, the sense of anguish has been replaced by frustration. The only comfort I take during it is the grim acknowledgement that I am not alone. One 2011 survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than 30% of Britons suffer from insomnia or another serious sleep problem. It’s a habit that seems to be on the rise more and more.
But is it hardly surprising? We live in a world that increasingly refuses to switch off; businesses, media and events go on at all hours of the night. No longer is there an end point where there is nothing on television and shops close up for the evening. On top of that, many of us push our bodies to the limits- some with good intentions to bring their families as much money as possible; others just to hold on to the euphoria of a good night out. It’s amazing how little some people seem to care about a lack of sleep, considering how important it is.
The rest of my family, by contrast, have no issues with their sleep- my Dad and sister even drop off the moment they pull back the blankets. Sometimes, I think if I was a superhero with any power in the world, I wouldn’t want strength or speed- just to sleep on demand. It isn’t just the experience itself that is unbearable though; it’s the aftermath; a day of restlessness as you constantly rub your eyes and squint into the daylight, praying that night will be okay.
My first serious bout of insomnia happened towards the end of the first semester of my final year of university. As if impending course deadlines and job applications weren’t enough, I was also running a student radio station, writing articles for local magazines and trying to update my YouTube channel as much as possible. I was just able to hack it, and worked as hard as I could to get everything done, but I was so focused throughout the day that come the evening, I just couldn’t switch off.
Ultimately, it made for one of the worst weeks of my life. After four days of getting no more than three or four hours a night, I had my first night with no sleep whatsoever. My emotions were already hanging by a thread; my stammer, which rarely makes an appearance nowadays, was at its peak. Thankfully I did manage to get some shut eye that night, but it was still disruptive, and it wasn’t until I’d finished my exams- sorry, exam- in late January that my sleeping pattern returned to normal.
Now, insomnia only rears its ugly head on rare occasions- usually when I’m getting too philosophical for my own good about what it is I’m doing with my life. Thankfully, there are a few things that I have learned along the way that help massively that I thought I would share, just in case you’re going through the dreaded cycle:
1) Switching off. It’s so easy, with the amount of devices at our disposal, to keep checking Facebook or find something on Netflix if you find you can’t get a good night’s kip. Instead, this only makes the matter worse as the light triggers your body into staying awake. I make sure to switch off my devices at least half an hour before bed and leave my phone charging on the other side of my bedroom; this also helps in the morning when my alarm goes off, as I have to force myself out of bed to stop it.
2) The power of exercise. Quite simply, the body needs to burn energy. Doing some form of cardio most days a week, even for half an hour, has worked wonders on my overall health and not just with sleeping. It certainly makes you feel more ready for bed when the evening arrives.
3) Powering down. Once my devices are all off, I usually settle into one of the artefacts of a bygone age called a book. After I’ve knocked off a few chapters, I spend about a minute breathing in and out as slowly as possible; inhale right to the point where you can feel the back of your throat, hold it for about five seconds, then exhale. Do that a few times, just focusing on the action and everything on your mind just evaporates.
4) The bed itself. Sometimes, something as simple as cooling your room by opening a window can make all the difference to nodding off, but it can be hard to realise this when all your efforts are focused on falling asleep in the first place. Take a blanket off (or put a blanket on), open the window… try something to alter the temperature of your bed and see the difference it makes.
5) Embrace it. They say keeping an eye on the clock only makes you more anxious, but if it feels like you’ve been lying there for ages and it really has been half an hour or so, then it’s clear you’re not in the right state to go to sleep. Get up, read a book or meditate or just do something that’s not in your actual bed- change your environment until you start to feel tired again.
I hope this helps somewhat, but remember above everything else; the body has to sleep, and it will do of its own accord in the end, no matter what tricks your mind might play. And while it might be horrible while going through the cycle, it will eventually come to a halt; something I wish I could tell the final year student version of me. In the scheme of things, it’s just another lesson to learn.
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