On average, we sleep one and a half hours less per night than our ancestors did 100 years ago and with today’s fast pace and lifestyle, nearly 50% of the adult population in the US is sleep deprived. This is partly due to longer working hours, increased commuting times, or looking after babies and young children but is also due to insomnia.
The most common result of being sleep deprived is in fact a public health issue and that is the risk of falling asleep behind the wheel. It is estimated that one third of all drivers will fall asleep while driving at least once in their lifetime. The monetary and human cost is tremendous and it is not only the drivers of motor vehicles that can be affected but also those who fly planes, sail boats or operate trains or other public transport.
Another consequence of insomnia is that we build up sleep debt.
This sleep debt is created when we don’t get enough sleep each night so that it accumulates, builds up quickly and does not decrease spontaneously. To repay this sleep debt, you need to sleep longer each night until the deprivation resolves. If you cannot make up sleep, then you are in danger of becoming dangerously sleep deprived to which your body reacts by having serious daytime drowsiness.
If you are suffering from insomnia and the consequences of insomnia, it is important (a) to find out what is causing your insomnia whether it be psychological factors, substance abuse, the side effects of some drugs, medical conditions such as asthma and others or a stressful life and (b) to practice good sleeping habits and lifestyle changes so that you can overcome this condition when it is mild to moderate.
However, chronic or severe insomnia should be referred to your doctor for help and guidance and to rule out any medical or psychiatric condition. He or she will perform a physical examination and certain laboratory tests while special investigations may be necessary in extreme cases. If you can keep a sleep diary with a record of how long and when you sleep, this can be very helpful to your doctor. It may even be necessary and helpful for you to have an assessment at a sleep clinic.
Some of the more unusual methods used to treat insomniacs are listed below:
• In some patients with extreme insomnia, behavioral therapies may be used such as relaxation therapy with special techniques to calm you and relax your muscles.
• Cognitive therapy is a useful technique for sufferers that often display unrealistic sleep expectations. These expectations can lead to performance anxiety due to excessive effort at trying to control the amount and quality of sleep. Cognitive therapy identifies these beliefs about sleep by replacing them with more adaptive and realistic beliefs and shifting of attention.
• Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique in which you are instructed to tense and relax different muscle groups throughout the body one by one to reduce the muscle tension that is often observed among insomniacs at night and during the day.
• Biofeedback is a method of providing visual or auditory feedback to you to help you control certain physiological factors such as muscle tension, ultimately encouraging you to become more inclined to sleep.
• Imagery training is a visualization used to focus on pleasant or neutral thoughts in order to diminish cognitive arousal.
• Sleep restriction is another method that initially allows only a few hours of sleep per night while gradually increases the nightly sleeping time. The amount of time in bed is shortened to match the amount of time asleep.
• Reconditioning is a method that teaches you to associate your bed with sleeping and not daytime naps. Called stimulus control, this is a technique where you are trained to re-associate your bed and the bedroom with rapid sleep onset.
• Drug treatment or medication may be effective in preventing physiological insomnia when all other methods are unsuccessful but it is important to diagnose any underlying medical or psychiatric condition and treat this too as the prolonged use of medication, without addressing the root cause, may result in dependency. Hypnotic or sleep inducing medications should only be used for a few days at a time in order to try and break a pattern of sleeplessness while addressing any underlying problem.
• If depression has been diagnosed, then antidepressants can be effective in helping you to overcome the depression and so sleep better.
Some of the methods of treating insomnia described in this article are rather different and some may consider almost experimental. However, everyone is unique and it may well be that a more unusual treatment will work for you if you are suffering from severe or chronic insomnia and your condition has not responded to the more usual lifestyle and environmental changes that can often make all the difference to an insomniac’s condition.
Whatever the method used, the most important fact is to ensure that you are getting a good night’s sleep.