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insomnia and your mental health
Andy Garland Therapies - Counselling Cardiff - Mental Health Services Cardiff - Cardiff Therapists

My insomnia is a desperately lonely experience: Until I was 17, I thought everyone struggled through sleepless nights. I really believed that the trauma of desperately trying and failing to fall asleep, night after night, was just part of being human.

I only realised that insomnia wasn't normal during my first holiday with school friends, when they emerged after 12 hours sleep to my single hour of dozing. I've always been a 'bad sleeper', even as a child. There's no easy explanation, but it's most likely connected to my ADHD, which was only diagnosed in my mid-20s. My brain responds chemically in the opposite way to what you'd expect.

Insomnia feels like the cruelest torment, depriving you of the precious hours meant for emotional and physical recuperation. In the worst periods, I dreaded spending time in bed, knowing that the experience would be more emotionally traumatic than whatever I'd dealt with during the day. Without a single moment to recover, the stress just got more intense.

Sleeplessness is also a desperately lonely condition. At night I feel like I inhabit an entirely different universe, compared to the 'real world' where normal people lie fast asleep. Meanwhile, I am wide awake and alone, not allowed to join them. Insomnia creates its own routines; after two hours of trying to sleep I stop checking the clock but still have an innate sense of how much time is passing.

After four hours, I miserably accept that sleep isn't going to happen easily and I try something new: lying on the sofa or swapping out my pillows. A change of scenery sometimes helps, but most of the time I'm still awake as the sun comes up. The experience is so physically and emotionally draining that I finally let myself cry it out, dampening my bed sheets. For years I was a slave to my insomnia during the daytime too.

I stopped driving due to dangerous dizziness and blurry vision, and I was so irritable and hypersensitive that walking around busy, noisy places was torturous. I planned exercise at the right time so that I'd be worn out but not full of endorphins, and ate dinner early enough to get at least two hours of 'wind-down' time before going to bed. Nothing helped.

The symptoms of insomnia can be invisible, especially for chronic sufferers like myself who become almost too good at 'just getting on with it'. It took me years to admit to friends that the reason I was cancelling on them was because I hadn't slept a wink for two nights. I've still never explicitly told an employer about the impact of sleep deprivation on my work and routines either, nor have I taken sick days due to my insomnia. There's something very private about sleep which makes it hard to have open conversations about insomnia. I find myself downplaying my experience in casual conversation. Maybe it's because everyone I know is also exhausted, sleep-deprived and stressed-out in some way.

Roughly a third of adults in the UK get by on around five hours of sleep, despite the NHS recommendation of getting seven to nine hours per night, and the importance of sleep and the consequences of not getting enough of it is now being highlighted.

Medical professionals need to thoroughly explore treatment options and refer insomniacs to sleep clinics or specialists, instead of putting the responsibility on the patient. Chronic insomnia needs to be treated - by doctors, employers and governments - as a serious chronic illness. In general, this means being sensitive to the lived experience of insomniacs, and taking time to understand what we go through so that policies and practical arrangements can be adapted to our needs.

Doctors have explained to me, sympathetically but firmly, that they couldn't prescribe sleeping pills for chronic insomnia, since the highly addictive pills are only suitable for short-term problems, often related to stress or bereavement. Instead they printed out the NHS pages on 'sleep hygiene' and told me to stop lying awake in bed - to give up, get up and 'read something boring' until I felt sleepy.

Only then was I allowed to get back into bed. It was a disaster: previously I'd been relatively calm just resting in bed throughout the night, but now I had to follow rules and so became increasingly obsessed, distressed and anxious about whether I was doing it right. Medical professionals need to thoroughly explore treatment options and refer insomniacs to sleep clinics or specialists, instead of putting the responsibility on the patient.

Andy Garland Therapies - Counselling Cardiff - Mental Health Services Cardiff - Cardiff Therapists

New research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be very effective for people with insomnia and have long-lasting effects, but my hope is that this is just the start of research into a variety of different treatment options. Insomnia arises from so many different causes, so it takes time and specialist expertise to work out how to best treat an individual's situation.

There is medication out there that isn't addictive, and I'm tremendously lucky and grateful that a psychiatrist refused to give up over the two years it took to find one that works for me. Now, I sleep four hours most nights, and it has transformed by life in innumerable ways. My life no longer revolves around (a lack of) sleep, but it doesn't mean I'm 'cured'. I still suffer through sleepless nights, but my insomnia occupies much less of my thoughts, and I can put more energy into making the best of my waking hours.

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