Updated: Jun 19, 2019
by Richard Brierley
We have all had the occasional night, or few nights when we’ve had a lot on our minds and can’t sleep. We feel exhausted and miserable the next day, but these episodes are short-lived and soon resolve as the cause of stress passes, or we adjust to it.
This article is not about this problem.
It’s also not about insomnia caused by something physical such as pain, itching, breathing problems, or tinnitus, or mental health problems such as clinical depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. These sleep problems are best managed by treating the underlying problem.
Sometimes insomnia doesn’t pass in a few days, and chronic insomnia develops. This is a much more serious problem, and for those that have experienced it, they’ll know that it can make life an utter misery, not only because of the persistent tiredness and low mood, but because sleep, and the lack of it, can become an obsession that affects every aspect of life.
Constant worry about how you will cope with work, cancelling social engagements, avoiding making any plans, and basically letting insomnia rule your life to an ever-increasing degree.
In my work as a GP, I often see people desperate for a solution to their sleep problems; and I have also personally struggled for many years with long term chronic insomnia.
I’m pleased to say that I am no longer suffering from it – I have discovered a solution that really works, and I’m certain that it can work for almost everyone who lies awake at night feeling desperately lonely and anxious, while those around them sleep soundly.
The problem is that the solution is not one that most people want to hear, but I’ll explain that very soon.
When sleep has been a problem for a long time, the main feeling is one of desperation to find a solution. You just want to sleep, and you’ll do anything to reach that goal. You’ll try going to bed earlier, going to bed later, avoiding coffee, avoiding alcohol, taking alcohol, avoiding eating too late, exercising at specific times, lavender pillows, herbal remedies, milky drinks, antihistamines, meditation, hypnosis, ear plugs, insomnia apps – a quick google search reveals enough suggestions to fill the rest of this page easily.
The large variety of suggested cures is a testament to the desperation that insomnia sufferers feel.
Maybe some of these occasionally help some people, but in my experience, when insomnia becomes a long-term problem, none of it makes any significant difference...
Eventually you’ll book an appointment with a doctor hoping that they’ll give you a solution in the form of a pill.
Believe me, they can’t.
There are drugs erroneously called “sleeping pills”, but they don’t actually provide sleep – they give sedation, which is a different thing entirely. During sleep, the brain is actually very active, but this is suppressed by sleeping pills which leads to the brain fighting against them, becoming even more active and in effect making it even more difficult to sleep normally. The usual response is to keep increasing the dose to get the same effect making it extremely difficult to ever come off them.
If you suffer from long-term insomnia and have had a dependency on sleeping pills for some time (or any other sedative, including alcohol), your sleep problems are not going to get better until you have stopped taking them. This is hard but not impossible, and I’d suggest discussing it with your GP, to get guidance on how best to do it. It often involves temporary replacement with another drug and will usually make sleep problems a bit worse for a while, but if you want to have a future of sleeping normally, it must be the first priority.
Anyway, back to that “cure” I mentioned earlier. There are basically two components, both of which are hard to accept initially but are essential for a full recovery.
The first is that you have to learn to accept your insomnia.
“What!?” I hear you shout, “I can’t accept something that is ruining my life!”
I understand that everything within you wants to fight this problem, but actually that is partly why the problem persists. Insomnia easily becomes an obsession, with escalating fear and anxiety. Going to bed itself becomes stressful, worrying about how many hours sleep you might get, how many nights before you will sleep again, how you’ll cope the next day at work...
You are caught in a vicious cycle. You have to accept that it doesn’t matter if you sleep or not.
Most people who sleep normally have the occasional bad night, and although they feel tired the next day, it doesn’t really worry them. If you think back, I am sure there are times when you were really worried that you wouldn’t be able to cope the next day but then it turned out to be alright and you did cope...
The fear and anxiety make it into a bigger monster than it really is.
The second thing is to realise that absolutely anything that you do with the intention of getting to sleep (apart from going to bed and closing your eyes) will make it more difficult to sleep. That includes all the things I listed above. It even includes what you make yourself think about to try to calm yourself down.
It seems counter-intuitive, and it’s very hard to accept when almost everything you read about insomnia makes some suggestion of something practical to do to help you to drop off. However, if you think about it, it makes sense. Whenever you do anything to make yourself sleep, your mind can’t help monitoring it, focusing on whether or not you are drifting into sleep and that is what actually keeps you awake.
What do people usually do to go to sleep? What did you do to go to sleep before you suffered insomnia?
The answer is that you did absolutely nothing.
You didn’t take anything, you didn’t do anything, you just let your mind wander wherever it wanted, and you didn’t worry about it, and sleep came every night.
You must get back into the habit of just doing nothing.
I don’t mean trying to make your mind go blank, as that in itself is something. I mean just letting your mind be free to do what it wants.
It took me many years to understand this, but I can guarantee from personal experience that it works. This is a short article and it’s difficult to explain things so briefly, particularly when it flies in the face of so much of the advice out there online or in books (most of which intends to sell you something).
Be assured insomnia doesn’t happen because you have something wrong with your brain. It happens because of bad habits, and fear. I hope that if you are a sufferer reading this, you can accept that there really is a simple road to recovery.
Richard Brierly is a freelance GP who works in the Eastbourne area.
Richard is married with three sons, and is particularly interested in the natural world; he loves spending time out in the beautiful Sussex countryside.
Richard and his family live in Eastbourne, East Sussex.