Insomnia is one of the most frustrating experiences in our modern existence. You stare up at the ceiling (or worse, at the red numbers on a clock), mind buzzing with random thoughts, tossing and turning while everyone else snores away blissfully. It can really drive a person crazy!
Everyone has insomnia sometimes. Even though I’m a sleep expert (and I was lucky enough to be born with good sleep genes), I still sometimes toss and turn all night. And these occasional sleepless nights are totally fine. They just mean you’re excited about something, or you have had one too many cups of coffee, or some other fluke stars aligned to make you unable to shut down for a night or two. All you have to do is ride it out, knowing you’ll be back to your normal sleep routine soon.
But for many people, insomnia becomes chronic. If you’re having a really hard time falling or staying asleep a few times per week, and this has been going on for a few months, then we’re dealing with a different animal. Chronic insomnia can really disrupt your life. It puts a damper over your everyday mood and turns sleep into a chore instead of a relief.
If you don’t have chronic insomnia yourself, I bet you know someone who does. About one in ten adults have chronic insomnia by the strictest diagnostic criteria. But if you ask everyone visiting a primary care doctor, one in three will have it. In my own clinic, the average patient has had chronic insomnia for 15 years before finding their way to me because they didn’t know there were treatment options other than Ambien and sleep hygiene.
That’s because most doctors’ go-to for treating insomnia are Ambien (and other prescription sleep medications) and sleep hygiene. As a psychologist and not a medical doctor, it’s not my place to talk in-depth about medications. But I can talk to you about sleep hygiene.
I’m sure you’ve already heard some things about it. Here’s what the National Sleep Foundation recommends (slightly paraphrased):
- Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime
- Exercising, but not too close to bed time
- Steering clear of food that can be disruptive right before sleep
- Ensuring adequate exposure to natural light
- Establishing a regular relaxing bedtime routine
- Making sure that the sleep environment is comfortable by using blackout curtains, keeping it cool, and banning all screens