4 things that make insomnia worse
While the rest of the world is sleeping, you’re wide awake. In the middle of the night. Again. And the harder you wish for it, the further away the prospect of getting back to sleep becomes…
Insomnia – which experts define as trouble falling asleep or staying asleep – affects up to two thirds of adults at some point in their lives. It’s a growing problem among young people. And if you’re the type who thinks in cold, hard cash, it’s estimated to cost more than $200 billion in productivity losses in the US each year.
None of which is going to make it any easier to fall asleep if you’re struggling right now. But it turns out that some of the most common ‘fixes’ for insomnia could actually be making your sleep problems worse.
Let’s take a look at what’s not working, and what you can try to get some quality sleep instead. But first…
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Chronic insomnia vs acute insomnia
Occasional difficulty sleeping is called acute or short-term insomnia, and it's the kind most of us are familiar with. Usually, it’s a reaction to something external: a big life change, a stressful event, or changing time zones. Acute insomnia lasts for fewer than three months.
If you have trouble sleeping for more than 3 months, and it’s happening at least three nights a week, you’re dealing with chronic insomnia.
While the tips below can be beneficial for both kinds of insomnia, if you are suffering from the chronic variety it’s important that you seek tailored advice from a healthcare professional.
Now let’s explore the 4 things that can make your insomnia worse.
1. Going to bed before you feel sleepy
If you’ve struggled with sleep in the past, chances are you’ve tried climbing into bed early to try to fall asleep earlier or ‘catch up’. The problem with this approach is sleep cannot be forced or controlled – it will only happen when you are actually sleepy.
Laying in bed tossing and turning can lead to sleep anxiety (“Why can’t I sleep?”), causing a stress response which will keep you up for even longer.
Instead, try tuning in to the sleep cues your body gives – such as yawning, heavy eyes or nodding off – and give yourself permission to go to bed when you start to experience these signs.
2. Staying in bed later than normal
“Just an extra 10 minutes…” We’ve all done it. Snoozing your alarm may feel great in the moment, but ultimately you’re just adding to your sleep problems by not giving yourself a chance to build up a sleep drive.
Your body has a sleep drive that increases the longer you’re awake – think of it like an hourglass where the pile of sand in the sleepy bottom half gets bigger with each passing hour as you go about your day. When it’s full, you’ll be ready to hit the sack.
Plus, the type and quality of sleep you get in that extra 10 minutes isn’t the kind of slumber that will make you feel rested and ready to take on the day.
3. Using daytime naps to ‘catch up’ on sleep
Disco kip. Siesta. Nana nap… Whatever you call it, and whatever time of day you take it, a nap is not necessarily a bad thing for everyone.
Let’s say you only slept for a few hours because your kid was up sick, but in general you don’t struggle to fall asleep at night. If that’s you, a short nap of no longer than 20 minutes, taken in the early afternoon, can give you a boost and probably won’t cause any issues.
But if you are struggling with acute or chronic insomnia, napping is not recommended. That’s because it adds to your body’s confusion about when to sleep, and takes the pressure off your sleep drive. If you have insomnia, your priority should be on building up enough sleep drive to be able to fall asleep at night.
Aside from avoiding naps, the best ways to build up your sleep drive are:
Keeping a consistent wake time (and not snoozing your alarm)
Limiting stressful activities late at night
Avoiding caffeine in the evening
Set up more good sleep habits with these science-backed fixes.
4. Canceling plans because you slept badly
If you have the kind of job where you operate heavy machinery or perform live-saving surgery, you should definitely not go to work when you’re overtired and may put yourself or others in danger.
But if you don’t have that kind of job, you can probably get through a day at work or still make it to that dinner with old friends you booked in months ago. While canceling plans or workouts might seem like the only option when you’re exhausted, it’s not always for the best – for a number of reasons.
Working and socializing can contribute to a healthy sleep drive by using up energy, which will help you when bedtime rolls around. And burning off physical energy is a great way to build up your sleep drive, too, so don’t skip training because you didn't have a great sleep – just be careful and dial back the intensity if needed.
When you cancel plans, you can also inadvertently create even more negativity in your mind around sleep: “If I keep sleeping so badly, I’m going to screw up at work,” or “My friendships are suffering because I’m always tired.”
For the sake of getting good zzzs, it’s important to reduce the anxiety around sleep as much as possible. It’s better in the long run to remind yourself that while being underslept (and probably a little grouchy) is not fun, it’s usually not the end of the world.
And it definitely shouldn’t stop you from living your life.
Disclaimer: This content is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have experienced sleep issues for three months or more, are facing excessive drowsiness that causes safety concerns, frequently snore loudly, or have been observed having difficulty breathing during sleep, please seek qualified medical advice. For a list of registered healthcare providers worldwide specializing in behavioral sleep medicine, please visit The Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine.
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