It is probably one of the most crippling conditions, yet also one of the most common. Insomnia diagnosis is fairly straight forward, but the treatment for it is complicated. Yet, a lot of people believe they have the answer when someone says they can’t sleep. To say you “can’t sleep” means different things to different people. To some, it means staying awake for an hour, falling asleep, and feeling a little tired the next day. To others, it's repeatedly waking up and feeling like they got no sleep at all. Most commonly, it means staring at the ceiling all night while praying for some sleep. Interpretations aside, what is consistent with insomnia is that it can last for months or years, sometimes someone's whole life. Usually, solutions like a massage and calming tea do not solve the problem. “For me, it means that I am awake ‘til four or five am, and then I am expected to be up at seven for work. I’m exhausted after a few days and eventually I fall apart,” said an anonymous interviewee, who’s dealt with insomnia since he was four. It is a condition with more stigma than you’d think. One of the first things someone with insomnia hears is "Have you tried...", implying that their lifelong ailment has a DIY solution, and thus discrediting it. Other very popular one-liners are "you just spend too much time looking at screens" and "getting up earlier will help". While any insomniac will say it is essential to avoid such risk factors, those comments make it sound as if it is the person's fault. Another way of stigmatizing the condition is by underestimating the severity. When an insomniac says they can’t sleep while still going to work, people conclude it’s not that bad. In the meantime, when a person doesn’t sleep properly for a few months in a row, they become exhausted, lethargic, and emotionally drained. They will feel physically unwell throughout the day and eventually burn out. This makes daily tasks and maintaining a job a challenge. Then if they express that they are tired, they’re told to go home and sleep. But if the person is an insomniac, they won’t fall asleep even if they’re exhausted. The idea “tomorrow is a new start” doesn’t apply to them. “Nobody truly grasps what it means if you can’t fall asleep. Even though I’ve done what I could, my brain doesn’t start the process of falling asleep. I’m comfortable in my bed, but at some point, my eyes fall open and I’m awake, despite feeling exhausted. I cannot keep my eyes closed without having to squeeze them. It’s alien to me how someone just closes their eyes and fall asleep within no time.” A common misconception is that insomnia is just sleeplessness, but that is only the beginning of the disorder. Insomnia is usually caused by another problem, but it can also give birth to a variety of new symptoms. Imagine what happens to someone who is sleep-deprived. I’ve already mentioned some of the consequences like headaches and burnouts, but insomnia can cause a lot of physical discomforts. Some people become dizzy, unresponsive, and some patients experience stiff muscles, aching joints, and over time it can cause neurological symptoms including hallucinations. All this can make a person paranoid, volatile, and in extreme cases, a danger to themselves. Like with a lot of other disorders, the stress of dealing with this can cause anxiety and depression. It becomes a chicken and egg situation, where no one knows if symptoms are caused by the lack of sleep, or if the lack of sleep is caused by other issues. “There came a time in my life where I stopped going to bed before six in the morning because I felt I could spend that time more productive than staring at the ceiling all night. When I talked to my family about it, they were sure I couldn’t sleep because of that habit. It was impossible to prove to them it was the other way around.” The diagnosis insomnia just names the presentation but doesn’t say anything about what causes a person to not sleep in the first place. It makes sense that someone wants to go down a list of common reasons why a patient stays awake, but in most cases, a patient could live a perfectly healthy life, but still not be able to sleep. As long as bystanders wave off someone’s complaints as self-induced, patients will run in circles. The condition will be untreated, and the symptoms creep up until the patient burns out. It doesn’t help that there are people in the world who feel perfectly fit with just a few hours of sleep, making the patient feel as if they just need to “get over it.” “I sometimes laugh, when my friend is cranky because she didn’t sleep properly for a few nights. I see people get emotionally unstable and stressed when they don’t get their rest. I sympathize, but if I am struggling with those feelings my entire life, how am I supposed to function?” There are a lot of people who are used to being sleep-deprived all the time. It is hard for them to recognize it when they’re marching to a burnout. If this sounds familiar, it’s worth it to find out if you possibly have insomnia. It’s important to reflect on if maybe you’ve been dismissing your horrible sleeping habits because your environment has downplayed it as your fault. If you can’t sleep, check off this list first: Avoid caffeine, sugar where possible, and alcohol This one doesn’t need explaining, these are substances that mess with a person’s energy level. Alcohol can make you think you’ve fallen into a peaceful sleep, but falling unconscious from alcohol, even a small account, doesn’t provide the same quality of rest as real sleep does. Lower the lights at least an hour before bed and reduce screen time. Reducing screen time is difficult in today’s day and age, especially when some insomniacs report that they fall asleep easier with the TV on or after watching TV. Lowering the lights long before you go to bed can help reset your biological clock. Don’t keep electronics near your bed. This is a common suggestion, but it’s not scientifically proven. Some believe that electric interferences from electronics can keep someone awake. Most insomniacs will grab any chance to improve their sleep. Conditions in the room. I am talking about things like light, smell, and temperature. These are all factors that are known to influence your sleep. Some people prefer a pitch-black room, some need some light. If there is a bad smell, or the room is too cold or too hot, this could prompt you to stay awake. Experiment and find your perfect conditions to fall asleep. Find your natural clock. Brains change and develop, and so does your biological clock. If you are suddenly unable to fall asleep at your regular bedtime, perhaps your biological clock has changed. Usually, you’ll start feeling urged to stay up later or go to bed earlier, follow this urge and see what happens. Generally, teens and young adults stay up later and wake up later, but after the age of 24/25, this very often changes and the adult goes to bed earlier. If you feel sleepy but don’t fall asleep, then the problem is probably not your biological clock. Create an evening ritual. The comfort of a routine to close off the day clears the mind. “Before I go to bed, I do my dishes, close my curtains, wash my face, hang up my clothes for the next day and fill the kettle for my morning tea. Doing all that makes the day feel final.” And the last tip supported by all the specialists around the world: don’t put pressure on it. Lie down in bed and do what comes naturally, but don’t make a mission out of it.
Anyone who desperately wants to improve their sleep will do whatever it takes. But if checking off the list above doesn’t tell you anything, the problem might be a lot more complicated. If after a few months you still don’t sleep properly, it’s time to see a doctor. Next time someone tells you they can’t sleep, listen to their story before you make any suggestions. Whatever you were about to say to them, they’ve probably already tried it.