Everyone experiences a night or two when they cannot sleep. Perhaps your big day is tomorrow, or you’re worried about one of the kids. But for some of us, these sleepless nights go on and on, making life a series of restless nights and fatigued days.
Such is the life I have lived as a professional insomniac.
I’m not alone in my wakefulness. Thirty million people in the United States alone spend their nights wishing they could fall asleep. So, in this article, I am going to talk to you about of my trials with insomnia and hopefully explain well the causes and treatments that are available.
First, An Explanation of Insomnia
The official description of insomnia as reported by the National Sleep Foundation and is as follows:
“Insomnia is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even when a person has the chance to do so.”
My definition agrees, except I would add one other descriptive term, insomnia is pure hell.
I have been an insomniac since I was a young child. I can remember lying at the foot of my bed at the age of four and coloring in my coloring book by the light of a street lamp that streamed through my bedroom window.
My insomnia began because of repeated and severe childhood abuse. I didn’t feel safe sleeping, so my body revved up at night instead of quieting down. I was on high alert and hypervigilant, even though doing so did not stop the trauma that was being inflicted on my young body and mind.
What Does Insomnia Feel Like?
I must agree with all those descriptions. If you don’t get a peaceful night’s sleep, you simply cannot function properly.
However, there are a few more things to know about insomnia.
Insomnia isn’t just being awake all night, it is also having trouble falling or returning to sleep plus difficulty staying asleep. Most of my life I lived and tried to function on four to six hours of sleep when I did manage to sleep at all.
Living life awake sounds like you might be able to be more productive, that you can get a multitude of things done. However, that is impossible for two reasons.
One, everyone else is asleep in your home and in your town so you need to remain quiet. Two, you are usually so distressed that you are going to get no sleep again that it makes being productive impossible.
The Many Causes of Insomnia
On the biological front, you may be experiencing wakefulness because of a physiological disorder or because of a medication you are taking. Partaking in some recreational substances can also alter your sleep patterns.
Then there are work-related causes such as working a swing or midnight shift.
Research has shown that insomnia is a problem with the brain being unable to stop being awake and is somehow out of the circadian rhythm that all humans have.
The internal clocks we all have in our brains keep us on track and in tune with the day and night cycles of planet earth. We began using these timepieces as an evolutionary adaptation to keep us safe when we were a less evolved mammalian form.
Certain medical conditions can cause insomnia as well. They include allergies with nasal congestion, stomach problems, hyperthyroidism, arthritis, problems breathing and chronic pain.
I live with several of these medical conditions, and I also have restless leg syndrome that can make lying in bed a living hell. My legs just will not relax.
They feel like I need to move them, so I am always jerking them to make them feel better. I now take a medication to treat this nightmarish syndrome.
Psychiatric problems like depression and anxiety can also cause insomnia. The problem can be quite serious because not only can depression and anxiety cause insomnia, but insomnia can, in turn, cause depression and anxiety.
The root cause of my insomnia began in early childhood because I was harmed at night by people I should have been able to count on for protection. I learned early that sleeping was a dangerous thing to do, so I began staying awake as much as I could.
Because of the trauma, I was experiencing and the sleeplessness, I was diagnosed with major depression at age six and soon after made a serious attempt to take my own life.
Anxiety can also cause insomnia.
Being nervous or worried causes many adults to lose sleep, but it is far worse than the normal anxiety that I am describing.
Anxiety is a severe psychiatric disorder that can leave a person feeling uncontrollable, overwhelming and irrational dread. This feeling of doom interferes with daily life and is often disabling.
Just like any medical condition, anxiety is a very real and severe problem. There are many types of anxiety disorders, and all of them can cause and be made worse by insomnia.
A few of the symptom of anxiety are as follows:
- Reliving events of the past
- Excessive worrying and dread of the future
- Being overwhelmed by life and its responsibilities
- Feeling strung out and overstimulated
For myself, anxiety is part of my psychiatric and medical condition. When I go to bed at night, I begin to experience what is called racing thought where my mind flits from subject to subject rapidly.
These thoughts aren’t necessarily about the things I need to do the next day, but rather are often about events that occurred decades before or possible events that will occur in the distant future.
I too often have lain in my bed weeping over events that happened in my childhood, over lost loves, and any other situation where I felt loss. Feeling unsafe, I have tossed and turned trying to will myself to rest.
Going to bed can be an ordeal filled with dread for an insomniac. Just the thought and fear that you won’t sleep can result in me to experience the forever wakefulness of insomnia.
Electronics and Sleepless Nights
We are living in a connected internet world. We keep our phones by our bedside and stay up late either watching television or doing work and playing on our iPads and computers. The problem with this lifestyle is that the light from your favorite electronic device can negatively affect your brain and cause it not to go to sleep.
The stimulation from the screen of an electronic device delays the body’s internal clock and suppresses the release of the natural sleep hormone melatonin. This happens because the short-wavelength artificial blue light given off by electronic devices increases the alertness of your brain.
The effect? At the time of the evening when you should be getting sleepy, your brain is experiencing a burst of energy from the light of your device. By delaying sleep and the entrance into REM sleep, you are causing yourself to feel less alert the next day.
The unfortunate truth is that the effects of using electronic devices are cumulative and over time you can experience chronic insomnia.
I have had problems with this myself. Using my phone to check on my email or the news when I go to bed can cause me to feel more awake and lessen my chance of getting a good night’s sleep.
Now I have a rule that I try to practice every day. I turn all my electronic devices off at 8:30, 9 at the latest each night. I can then listen to quiet music and read until I go to bed.
I know, to the younger generation turning off the phone or computer so early may seem rash. However, if you have spent your life awake, you’ll do what it takes to get some shuteye.
Medications That Treat Insomnia
Through the years I have tried various remedies to my insomnia. I’ve taken over-the-counter sleep aids but soon found they became ineffective. The pills you can get without a prescription are antihistamines that will make you sleep well for a few nights.
However, these substances lose their ability to help you sleep because your body adjusts to them rendering them useless.
I have taken prescription sleep aids, but found they had some pretty nasty side-effects.
The problem with these medications is that they are very potent and can cause a myriad of troubles. These can include sleepwalking, sleep eating, sleeping so soundly that you are unaware of the danger and in a few cases have been known to cause aggressive behavior.
All medications used to help you sleep can and should only be used for a short duration. Becoming dependent on them can be hazardous to your health.
Always follow your doctor’s recommendations with these and any medications you may be taking. Be sure to tell your physician about all the medicines you are taking including herbal remedies and over-the-counter drugs.
The is one more and very crucial point I want to add to these warnings. Never, ever drink alcohol or use recreational drugs after taking sleeping medications. If you do, you are risking not only your health but possibly your life.
Alternate Methods to Treat Insomnia
I am an old hand when it comes to finding ways to help myself go to sleep. I’m going to share with you the things that I have discovered increases my chances of sleeping. These methods include calming the racing thoughts, downloading the worries, and using your imagination.
Calming the Racing Thoughts. The constant buzz of racing thoughts can be more than annoying, they can be disturbing. I take a low dose of a medication for psychosis that calms my racing thoughts, but I have an extreme case.
There are some coping skills I have learned and utilize on a regular basis.
- Distancing your mind from what concerns you. More chances than not, what you are focused on some future event or problem that is not going to happen.
- Focus on something positive. One trick I’ve employed is to imagine I have one-hundred million dollars and try to spend it. While I’m imagining the house, I would build or the park I would create, my body is relaxing, and soon I am asleep.
- Change what happened. Any event that is keeping you up at night can be changed in your mind. In my own case, I have traveled back in time and rescued my childhood self.
- Repeat a mantra. The mantra can be simple like “everything is okay,” or “life is good and getting better.” I know this sounds ridiculous to we who live in the west, but meditating is a very effective way to gain the relaxation necessary to fall asleep and stay that way.
- Write things down. I have employed this method very successfully for a few years now. When the racing thoughts intrude into my consciousness, I write them down. I keep a pad of paper and a pen next to my bed, and as the thoughts occur, I download them from my brain onto a hard copy.
It’s like my computer (brain) is overloaded and cannot function properly. By downloading my thoughts and worries, I effectively take power away from them and can sleep.
- Practice staying in the present. While this sounds easy, it can be quite a trial to practice. If you are like me, you spend an inordinate amount of time either in the past or the future.
Humans are very good at getting caught up worrying and fretting over things that cannot be changed. There can be no more excellent example of this than worrying over something I did not do correctly two decades ago, or what may happen ten years from now.
Practicing mindfulness, I pull myself into the present and think of my current situation. Like the mantra, I use self-talk. I am safe, I am well-fed, I’m not sick, I have warm clothes and a roof over my head. By taking inventory about what is happening in the present moment many times my mind will finally find peace and I will go to sleep.
The Horrendous Consequences of Not Sleeping
The consequences to the health of an insomniac of sleep deprivation are serious. Research has shown that not getting enough sleep can increase the risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
When humans sleep, our brain does the housekeeping necessary to keep it running correctly, as during deep sleep the brain washes itself of the byproducts left from your brain cells during the day.
An article that was posted by the South China Morning Post gives an excellent explanation of this cleaning process. It reported that neuroscientists working at the University of Rochester Medical Center used medical imaging techniques to watch the brains of mice while they were asleep or awake.
It is known that the energy level of the brain does not decrease during sleep and the wished to see how the energy was being used.
What they discovered was that the brain has an unusual way to remove waste materials and toxins from the brain. It pumps cerebral spinal fluid through the spaces between the brain cells to wash them clean.
They found through their research one more important fact, the brain can only cleanse itself without sleep. This is because our brain has a limited amount of energy and it must choose between being awake and aware or asleep and washing.
If you don’t get enough sleep, our brains will become poisoned. It is no wonder we are so moody and have a higher tendency to experience psychiatric disorders without sleep.
Finding Help from a Doctor Can Be Difficult
I have only in the last two years been adequately treated for my insomnia. I often tell others that I have spent 56 years awake, and I believe that is not an exaggeration. Oh yes, I have slept during those years, but it was in such short bursts that it was unhelpful.
At one point, six years ago, I was seeing one out of the dozens of Psychiatrists I have seen and complained to him I could not sleep. In response, he put me on a drug regimen that helped me sleep, only I couldn’t stay awake in the daytime either.
I felt like a walking zombie and two weeks later demanded a new appointment. I told that Psychiatrist during the emergency appointment that I was not going to take the medications he had prescribed and was summarily fired as his patient.
It was two years ago that I began seeing my current Psychiatrist. He performed a very simple genetic test to find which medications work best for me and which were unacceptable to my body.
To my amazement, almost every drug I had taken for insomnia, anxiety, and depression were listed under the intolerable medicines. There was a shorter list of those that might help, and only four listed as ones that should work well in my body.
My doctor began giving me a tiny dose of one of the acceptable drugs and I started to sleep almost immediately. I cannot tell you what a relief it is not to spend my nights awake any longer.
If you are experiencing insomnia and consider yourself a career insomniac, then this article is for you.
I want you to know that you are not alone, and that help is available. The genetic testing done by my doctor is covered by both Medicaid and Medicare and may be a paid diagnostic test that your insurance will pay for. If the doctor you are seeing will not perform the genetic test and wishes to instead treat your insomnia by over-medicating you, seek out a different one.
Most importantly, don’t ever give up. With appropriate treatment, a good night’s sleep is just around the corner.
Don’t forget to download and utilize our free Patient Next Door app onto your smartphone. With it, you can share the healthcare journey of you and your child with people who are facing similar conditions.
The app isn’t just free, it is ads free!
As always, we here at Patient Next Door love serving you and hope you will join us in aiding others in finding resources and hope.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. I’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as possible. Why, because I and the PatientNextDoor Support team care about you.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of PatientNextDoor. Any omissions or errors are the author’s and PatientNextDoor does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.