You’re lying in bed, eyes wide open and listening to the nighttime sounds of your house while everyone else sleeps. Your dog snores. Your child snores. Your partner snores. These only seem to punctuate the fact that you aren’t sleeping. You toss and turn. You count sheep. And the sleepless hours tick on.
No matter how it looks, insomnia is not pretty. And the next day feels even worse as you pump up your coffee levels just to make it through. Then, when evening comes, you’re exhausted but you still can’t sleep. This can go on and on for weeks, months, or even years causing other health problems as well.
When you suffer from insomnia, you are certainly not alone. At any given time an estimated 30-40% of Americans report experiencing insomnia. Quality of life, job performance, risk of accidents, family relationships and much more can be affected by getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis. So we should certainly be taking insomnia very seriously!
What is Chronic Insomnia?
The word chronic added to anything might make it seem a little bit scary! Really, however, chronic is just a term to mean that something has been going on repeatedly or over a long period of time. And that usually means that it’s a bit more serious than something temporary that will go away on its own.
In the case of insomnia, the term “chronic” is typically defined as an inability to go to sleep or stay asleep for at least three nights a week for three weeks or more. Anything less than this is considered to be acute insomnia (“acute” is kind of a scary word as well!). Typically acute insomnia goes away on its own, often before you can even get an appointment with the doctor to talk about it.
What Causes Chronic Insomnia?
Chronic insomnia can be a primary condition, or a symptom of another underlying health condition. Because the cure for insomnia is related to the cause, it’s important to find out what is causing your insomnia in order to figure out the most effective remedy. Triggers for insomnia may be related to psychological, emotional, or medical problems.
The most common cause of chronic insomnia is often thought to be related to anxiety, depression, and stress. Because having difficulty sleeping can cause stress and anxiety, this becomes a vicious cycle that makes sleeping feel almost impossible.
Other psychological and emotional issues that may trigger insomnia include:
- Bipolar disorder
- Excessive worry
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Panic Attacks
Medical and physical health problems may also be the cause of insomnia. These could include:
- Chronic pain or fatigue
- Congestive heart failure or angina
- Acid-reflux disease
- Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease
- Brain tumor
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Hormone shifts during menstruation or menopause
- Genetic conditions
- Restless Leg Syndrome
- Sleep Apnea
Not only can health issues cause chronic insomnia, but the side effects of medications taken for these health issues can cause sleepless nights as well. Here are some of the types of medications that may be to blame for your chronic insomnia:
- Alpha blockers
- Beta blockers
- SSRI Antidepressants
- Cholinesterase inhibitors
- Second Generation H1 agonists
- Angiotensin II-receptor blockers
- ACE inhibitors
- Psychotropic drugs
- Narcotic such as sleep aids
Sometimes the cause of insomnia is simply based on the circumstances around you. This is great news because it means that these problems might have a simple fix.
Some of the environmental causes of insomnia may include:
- A snoring partner
- Living in a noisy neighborhood or on a flight path
- Sleeping a place that is too hot or has too much light
- Uncomfortable mattress or pillows
- Overstimulation from technology
How to Overcome Chronic Insomnia
As you can see, chronic insomnia can be caused by a myriad of problems related to medication, emotional health, physical health or even sleeping circumstances. Typically, when you see your doctor about problems you are having with chronic insomnia, they’ll check for a number of factors that might be causing it.
The solution could be very simple. For instance, if your chronic insomnia is related to medication, the doctor may try to change your prescription—or even the time of day that you take it. On the other hand, if your insomnia is caused by a less-obvious problem, you may need to adjust mitigate the problem by using sleep hygiene skills and changing some lifestyle habits.
Most of the time, medical professionals today try not to prescribe sleep medications for people with chronic insomnia. This is because those types of prescription drugs are typically only useful in the short term and can even be addictive or have more negative side effects than would justify using them for insomnia.
Instead, many doctors adhere to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for their patients who are struggling with insomnia. This approach combines healthy counseling to address underlying reasons for stress or anxiety, with useful changes to lifestyle habits.
Here are some of the best lifestyle changes doctors recommend for chronic insomnia:
Relaxation Training. If your chronic insomnia is due to stress, learning how to relax can change everything. Progressive muscle relaxation helps systematically tense and then relax muscles throughout the body, which induces sleep while calming the body and mind. Breathing exercises, meditation techniques, mindfulness exercises, and guided imagery may also help to battle stress and overcome sleepless nights.
Stimulus Control. Making sure your brain and body have time to slow down prior to sleeping is critically important. Limit the types of activities you do in the bedroom—such as working, watching television, playing video games on your tablet, or engaging in social media on your smartphone. Instead, restrict your bedroom activities and make your bed a place that is for rest.
Environment. Your bedroom needs to be set up as a successful place to sleep. Keep the temperature between 60 and 67 degrees. Make sure blinds or room darkening curtains are installed to keep annoying light out. Wear ear plugs, use a white noise machine, or run a fan to drown out outside noises that could keep you awake. Even the color of paint in your room should be considered because soft, soothing colors are much more likely to help you to relax.
Circadian Rhythm. Going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning establishes your sleep cycle. A person with a strong sleep cycle is less likely to struggle with insomnia. Avoid taking naps during the day so that you can be sure to sleep at the appropriate time at night.
Chronic insomnia can be a serious condition, but it certainly isn’t hopeless. Use these tips and talk to a medical professional to come up with a solution to turn your sleepless nights into peaceful rest.