You’re lying in bed. Wide awake .. your mind is racing at a million miles a minute. And the more you will yourself to fall asleep, the more elusive it seems to be.

Why can’t you just switch off?

It’s a situation many people can relate to. But at what point does poor sleep become something more serious?

When you’re going through a stressful period of your life, have a dreaded event looming, or are excited about something, you may have difficulty sleeping. You might also find that jet lag or an acute medical illness is preventing you from nodding off.

In most of these cases, once the stressful or exciting event is removed or overcome, sleeping patterns return to normal.

If you’ve been having trouble sleeping for over a month, it’s more likely that you have persistent insomnia and need to address the issue.

At its core, insomnia is based on how well you perceive your sleep. For this reason, it can vary from person to person because, while some people feel that six hours of sleep is adequate for them, some may feel that they need eight or more. It’s not like there is a minimum quota of hours’ sleep you need and if you fall beneath this number you have insomnia.

The Sleep Health Foundation lists three traits that are consistent with insomnia:

  • Difficulty getting to sleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Difficulty getting back to sleep when you wake in the night

You may have experienced one or more symptoms from the above list. This can have a profound effect on your day-to-day life. Some of these effects can include the following:

  • General tiredness throughout the day
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of motivation
  • Tension headaches
  • Emotional instability and irritability
  • Increased feelings of anxiety

About one in three people in Australia will experience insomnia at some point throughout their lives. It’s also estimated that approximately 10 per cent of people in Australia will be living with mild insomnia at any one time.

For people living with a mental health condition like anxiety, it can feel like a brutal cycle – anxiety brings on insomnia, which in turn causes more anxiety.

Here is a quote from our Beyond Blue forums:

“I can't sleep because I'm anxious, and when I don't sleep the symptoms of anxiety are much worse. A common night for me is lay there for two to three hours trying to get to sleep, then once I'm asleep waking up every hour or so with bad anxiety in the middle of the night. I try to tire myself out during the day physically but I can just never seem to feel tired. It is so frustrating, I get more anxious as it gets later in the day as I know I will have to go to bed soon.”

So what can you do if you are dealing with insomnia? Here are some tips to help you navigate your way through it:

  • If you haven’t already, establish a bedtime routine. Going to bed at a similar time each night sets the foundation for your body’s sleep pattern. Find the routine, find a time and stick to it.
  • If you can’t sleep, get out of bed completely. Even out of the room if you can. Try doing a calming activity like sketching, reading or craft. Here is a personal experience from one of our forum users:

    “I remember before two of my final exams last semester, I was so terrified that I didn't sleep all night. At 4 or 5am, I decided sleep was hopeless, so I got up and made mind maps instead. Lo and behold, after about 20 minutes, I was ready to sleep and I got a few hours' rest before the exam.”

  • Try sleep-related meditations before bed. Apps like Smiling Mind are great for helping you reach a mindful state before going to sleep. You might also like to try listening to audiobooks (Did somebody say Harry Potter being read by Stephen Fry!?)
  • Avoid stimulants like caffeine in the late afternoon. For some people, a coffee after 2pm affects sleep. For others it’s 5pm. Find your threshold and stick to it.
  • While tempting, taking sleep pills isn’t an effective solution in the long run.

If your sleeping difficulties are ongoing and showing no signs of improving despite employing the above tactics, seek professional help. Talk to your GP about next steps. They might refer a sleep specialist or psychologist who can use cognitive behaviour therapy

Related reading: Three tips to getting a good night’s sleep

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