Insomnia is not a choice; so let’s be more sensitive in our discussions about it

Having taken some time away from this blog, this is the first piece I’ve written in quite some time! I was prompted to write it by something that’s been annoying me more and more recently, to the point where I’ve actually become completely fed up and convinced that something needs to change. I’m not normally a particularly angry person, but I am angry about this issue and have a lot to say about it! So without further ado…

I talk very openly about the fact that I suffer from intermittent insomnia. It comes in phases, but when I’m stuck in a bad phase, it completely takes over my life. Sleep deprivation has historically been used as a form of torture, and when I’m on my third or fourth day of only three or four hours’ sleep, I can completely understand why. My mental faculties start to diminish to the extent that I really can’t think straight any more, and my emotions become more and more volatile to the point where I can’t really be trusted to have any sort of sensible or pragmatic reaction to anything. I feel physically ill – my appetite completely deserts me – and I can’t stop shivering. The worst of it, though, is the compulsive worrying and fretting that accompanies a bad phase. I worry about what this lack of sleep is doing to my body and my brain. I reach a point where I dread going to bed, because lying there staring at the ceiling and counting down the hours until I need to get up is one of the most unpleasant experiences I frequently have to endure. And after a few nights – when I’ve reached the aforementioned ‘can’t think straight and am ridiculously over-emotional’ stage – I can’t shake the fear of: what if I just never sleep again?

All it normally takes is something to break the cycle, and then I’m back on track. But when I’m in a bad phase, my brain and my body are in a pretty bad place – as is the case for anyone struggling with sleep deprivation.

So when I log onto Medium and see an article headed “Why Lack Of Sleep Is So Bad For You” (I deliberately haven’t linked to this piece, for reasons I will explain), my blood really starts to boil. Why, you might ask? People can post what they want on Medium – that’s the beauty of it – and sleep is fascinating to many of us. Plus, the writer in question may genuinely want to help. They may be warning people off the unhealthy habit of burning the midnight oil, or regularly watching Netflix until 2am. But headlines like this – and I’ve been seeing more and more of them recently, this certainly isn’t the only culprit – really make me angry.

Firstly: this isn’t news. We all know lack of sleep is bad for you. You may as well put out an article entitled “Why Binge-Drinking Is Bad For You”, or “Why Not Eating Vegetables Can Have Negative Consequences”. But this isn’t even what really pisses me off about headlines like this (and to be fair, I didn’t actually read the piece – for all I know, the author could have discovered some radical sleep-science hitherto unknown to the human race). What really pisses me off is the scaremongering aspect of it. Because lack of sleep isn’t a choice. At least – it’s not a choice for people with chronic insomnia. It’s not a choice for junior doctors, who frequently work 18-hour days and can put in shifts of up to 72 hours in order to do their job. And it’s not a choice for people with severe anxiety, depression, OCD or any other form of mental health frailty that results in lying awake worrying or panicking. Binge-drinking or not eating vegetables: those are choices (at least – to a certain extent). They’re issues that, if you’re in the mental and financial position to do so, you can actually do something about. But I cannot, currently, do anything more than I am currently doing to manage my insomnia. I turn my phone off at around 7pm every night. I try to ensure my room is cooler than the rest of the house, and in total darkness. I do yoga, pilates and meditation. I don’t drink caffeine after midday, and I don’t eat to soon before going to bed. I have a routine, where possible. And yet I will still often lie awake for hours on end, night after night, fretting about the negative effects all this awake-time is having on my brain and body. And so when I see headlines like the one mentioned above, I feel a quiet swell of fury. I am doing everything I can, and I still worry about it constantly. And when my lack of sleep-addled brain sees yet more evidence that my worrying is justified (it’s not), that I’m right (I’m not), that what I’m going through is having irreparably negative consequences on my health (it isn’t) – well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how that makes me feel. In short: it exacerbates the problem. And if that’s the case for me, I’m prepared to bet that’s the case for many others who are experiencing the sleep-deprivation that I often experience.

So I think it’s time we changed the language, and thought about the effect that our words can have on people who are feeling vulnerable and fragile. Rather than the sensationalist, clickbait phrasing (which, as a budding journalist, I should hasten to add I do understand), we need to start talking about how we can help. Something like “Struggling with insomnia? Here’s how you can start to manage it”, for example. No, it may not be as catchy. But isn’t it better for lifestyle journalism to aim to make someone’s day a little bit better, rather than a little bit worse? Instead of listing all the negative aspects of a lifestyle element that many of us don’t know how to control, can’t we start looking at what can actually be done about it? The phrase “choose your words carefully” is bandied about a lot, but here I think it’s about as apt as they come. Words are powerful things; let’s start using them for the good.

Let’s Talk About Sleep

Everyone knows sleep is good for mental health. Go to any “Health and Wellbeing Tips”, “Anxiety Coping Strategies”, etc., and a good night’s sleep will always be at the top of the list alongside healthy diet, exercise, no caffeine/alcohol and all the other usual culprits.

I’ve experienced this first-hand in the last week or so. Last week, I didn’t get much sleep at all and my mental health was terrible. I mean really, really awful – I had my first full-blown panic attack (I thought I’d had them before; turns out I hadn’t!) and I just generally felt as though the world was ending. The last three nights, though, I’ve had plenty of sleep and I feel So. Much. Better. Not perfect, but 1000 times better than I did this time last week.

I know what a lot of people will be thinking in response to the above: we know sleep is important. We know we need it in order to function properly and (for any readers who are fellow sufferers of anxiety) in order to let the brain’s energy go into maintaining a calm, stable equilibrium rather than working to keep us awake, which means the anxiety demons are free to run riot with nothing to stop them.

But raise a [metaphorical] hand if you’re utterly sick of hearing how important sleep is, when it’s often something that’s so out of our control. I get selective insomnia, meaning that no matter how tired I may be, sometimes my body just refuses to let me sleep. I had this the other night – I was exhausted all day (from several nights of not sleeping well, ironically) and I had a full day of interviews in London. So by the time I got into bed, I was confident that surely, tonight, I’d fall asleep quickly and sleep well. Not so. Despite having spent the majority of the day struggling to stay awake, when I got into bed I was suddenly full of adrenaline and, no matter what I did, I just couldn’t seem to fall asleep.

For me, hearing how important sleep is for my mental health just makes it all worse. If I could ensure that I got eight hours sleep a night without fail, I would. But it’s just not always in my control and so hearing experts going on and on about how crucial sleep is to a balanced mental state just makes me stress even more. I lie awake at night, worrying not only about how tired I’m going to be the next day but also about how bad my anxiety will be. As you can imagine, not exactly ideal conditions for drifting off.

Last week especially, I actually felt incredibly angry at my body. I wanted to say, “I will do anything you want in order not to feel anxious. I’ll eat healthily, do plenty of exercise, stay away from alcohol and caffeine, go to yoga, use the Headspace app every day, stay off social media for a few days and anything else that might help. But beyond going to bed at a reasonable time, sleep is something I just can’t control – so can’t you just help me out a bit here?!”

So what’s the answer? Again, everyone already knows. Just stop worrying! Stop caring about whether you sleep well or not, stop fretting about lying awake – just stop thinking about it altogether, and you’ll be sure to drift off. All things that plenty of people have said to me many times…and my response has always been (as I’m sure will be the same for anyone reading this who struggles with the same thing): HELPFUL. (In case it wasn’t clear, that was sarcastic.)

“Just stop worrying about it” is never an answer for a worrier! So, accepting that the worry is there and that said worry will prevent you sleeping, what are the best steps to take? Firstly, without resorting to sleeping pills, there are a couple of things you can take to send the midnight adrenaline on its merry way. Camomile tea does help, to a certain extent – it has a (very mild) sedative effect and should help to calm the mind. Magnesium tablets are also great. They’re just a basic vitamin that you can buy in any Boots or health food store, but they do something to the nervous system that helps the body shut down for the night. I think it’s linked to the muscles…it helps the body release tension and persuades the muscles to relax, which then sends a message to the brain that you’re relaxed (or something along those lines…more info available on the packaging/online if my incredibly vague/possibly incorrect explanation isn’t very helpful!).

The above solutions don’t always work for me, though, in which case I’ve always found the best thing to do is just confront the fear head on, by asking: what’s the worst that can happen? Ok, I won’t sleep at all. I’ll be incredibly tired and possibly incredibly anxious as well – but at least I’ll know it’s linked to sleep. It’s amazing what your body can do when it comes to getting you through a difficult day, and knowing there’s a reason for any anxiety you’re experiencing (whether it’s linked to sleep, hormones, hangover or something else) is often the first step to feeling better!

Sleep is a wonderful, amazing thing – but it can also be a source of immense stress and frustration. To anyone struggling with a similar issue, my advice would be: stay away from articles/essays/books on how important sleep is for mental and physical health. In my experience, I have never, ever found them reassuring. Chances are you already know the fundamentals (as I’ve said above: yes, we know it’s important!) and any new information about all the negative effects lack of sleep can have on your brain and body will probably only make you worry more.