HEALTH When insomnia strikes

Nurturing

WAKING NIGHTMARE Insomnia takes different forms, and can take a serious toll.


Jannah Walshe

In Stephen King’s novel, ‘Insomnia’, the protagonist is an elderly man in his 70s whose wife had recently died from cancer. He starts to wake earlier and earlier until he is no longer sleeping through the night at all.
I read this book as a teenager, and it was the first time I had heard of insomnia. My impression was that it was a dreadful affliction that affected older people. I was wrong. Although it does become more prevalent the older we get, it can affect anyone.
We all have nights where we sleep badly or wake still feeling tired. It’s part of life. If it happens regularly over a few months, however, it can be termed insomnia.
People experience insomnia differently. It might be taking a long time to fall asleep, waking many times during the night, waking earlier and earlier in the morning, or waking still feeling tired. The length of time a person can suffer from insomnia can vary too, as can the severity. A person with insomnia may feel tired, irritable, confused and/or foggy during the day. Their memory and ability to concentrate may be affected.
When dealing with insomnia it is important to look at all areas of your life, because insomnia is connected to and triggered by so many other things. Some of these include:

Physical conditions
Many aspects of our physical health can cause or contribute to insomnia. These include acute or chronic pain, asthma, arthritis, menopause and endocrine disorders such as hyperthyroidism, to name but a few.

Medications
Certain medications can be related to insomnia, and it is worth checking information leaflets to see if there are possible sleep-related side effects.

Emotional distress
There are a few mental health conditions that can affect sleep, the main ones being anxiety and depression. Anxiety symptoms that can contribute to insomnia include physical tension, thinking about past events and excessive worry about future events, feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities and a general feeling of being revved up or overstimulated.
It is commonly accepted that depression and insomnia are connected. Even though someone with depression can appear to sleep a lot it is usually difficult for them to sleep for a full night straight and to wake feeling rested.
The irony of this connection between emotional distress and insomnia is that it becomes a negative cycle. If someone is anxious or depressed, their sleep is affected and insomnia can develop. Living with insomnia over time can cause the person to become more anxious or depressed and hence the cycle continues.

Lifestyle factors
Factors like caffeine, alcohol, shift work, sleeping environment, lack of routine and excessive use of screens (such as phones and tablets), can all contribute to insomnia. It is worth looking at these things as a first port of call when treating insomnia.

Steps to take
There is no one-cure-fits-all approach to treating insomnia. It is about taking a holistic view of the person’s life and gradually step by step making changes that could help the insomnia. If you are living with insomnia, get checked out by your doctor firstly to rule out any physical causes.
Look at your daily routines and sleep patterns too. For example, taking a nap may impede your ability to sleep at night. Going to bed and getting up at regular enough times can help. Look at what you do before bed to wind down.
These things may seem simplistic, but it is important you set up healthy habits to start with. If you find this hard, find a professional to talk with to find out why. If you think any type of emotional distress could be affecting your insomnia, speak to a professional therapist who can help you.

The following websites have useful information on insomnia: www.hse.ie and www.sleepfoundation.org.

Jannah Walshe is a counsellor and psychotherapist based in Castlebar and Westport. A fully accredited member of The Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, she can be contacted via www.jannahwalshe.ie, or at info
@jannahwalshe.ie or 085 1372528.