|Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
My main obstacle to falling asleep is the mental vacuum created by bedtime. When nothing else is occupying my mind - be it work, writing or simply an absorbing television programme - my current worries flood in to fill it. I replay that day's confrontations, fret about challenging events to come, plan my future; anything but still my mind ready for sleep.
Listening to the local talk radio station, on a very low volume, is a great way to counter this void. Providing an alternative focus deflects anxiety-inducing thoughts and usually I don't even realise I'm drifting off until I wake an hour later. Unfortunately, by the time I've turned the radio off and put in my earplugs, I'm as wide-awake as when I first went to bed.
Outside causes certainly contribute to my repeatedly waking up. Even with earplugs, flat-living can be noisy: from the front door slamming at all hours, to upstairs' neighbours thudding about like clog-wearing elephants. Once I'm awake, anxieties immediately crowd into my head, to prevent the return of sleep.
I do know that my 'sleep hygiene' could be better: I always eat late and am usually still doing chores until just before I go to bed. No wonder my body doesn't know what's going on, when it suddenly finds itself horizontal and stationary.
Although the problem is mostly in my head, I've tried all the usual physical tricks, in a bid to alleviate the situation: avoiding stimulants, using herbal medications, sprinkling lavender on my pillow, and so on. Nothing has ever provided a guaranteed solution. Comparing notes with a fellow insomniac, she told me she sometimes sleeps best after indulging in a 'perfect [insomniac's] storm' of wine, coffee and chocolate. There seems no rhyme or reason as to what might help or hinder sleep.
The combination of insomnia and anxiety creates a classic vicious circle. Anxiety stops me sleeping, which leaves me exhausted and less able to cope with the stresses of the day, which exacerbates my anxiety and renders sleep even harder to find.
After a few days of particularly bad sleep, I then also become anxious about the fact that I'm not sleeping. That anxiety causes my heart to race as soon as I lie down and is made worse by the subsequent middle-of-the-night clock-watching and constant recalculations of 'How much sleep I'll get if drop off right now'.
As a youngster, I frequently complained to my parents about being unable to sleep, which means I've endured more than 40 years of sleep deprivation. On any given day, I am either tired, really tired, or exhausted. The fatigue makes me irritable and unable to concentrate, and saps me of the energy I need to make the most of my waking hours. I often wonder what kind of a person I might have been, and how different my life, without insomnia.
Of course, until I address the underlying cause - once and for all - I'm destined never to find out.
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Do you suffer from insomnia? If so, what - if anything - helps you to sleep?