How often in your life have you been in a condition when you are deadly tired and dream only about getting in your warm bed—to find yourself completely unable to fall asleep? An hour, two hours, three hours in a row you lie, tossing from side to side. Your bed has suddenly become too hot or uncomfortable, and the feverish thought train rushes through your mind; you are tired and angry, because you have got less and less time before you will need to get up and go to work again, and you start to suspect that this night, all your effort to fall asleep will be in vain. Finally, after five hours of useless torture, desperate, you get up and go to the kitchen to make yourself a strong cup of coffee, hoping that it will help you hold on for another day.
This is what an episode of insomnia looks like. All people get moments like this at least once in their lives due to excessive stress—fatigue (extreme tiredness, although it might seem paradoxical, can lead to insomnia episodes), anxiety, excitement, or other factors—it may be difficult or impossible to fall asleep every once in awhile. However, imagine a life when every night resembles the situation described above; imagine how an exhausted, nervous, haggard man or woman approaches his or her bed hoping that this time, he or she will finally be able to have some rest—only to spend yet another night awake, occasionally grabbing an hour or two of shallow, restless sleep. As morbid as it sounds, this condition has become a major problem for millions of people all over the world. Insomnia, along with chronic depression, has become one of the most common psychological disorders of modernity.
So, what is insomnia exactly? To start with, specialists distinguish between chronic and acute insomnia. Acute insomnia does not necessarily mean some kind of a psychological problem; it mostly occurs due to life circumstances, or stress caused by them: exams, moving to a new place, the first week at work, divorce, marriage, jet lag, singular episodes of fatigue, and so on. Acute insomnia is usually short-term, and can last from one or two days, to a couple of weeks. Chronic insomnia, in its turn, is a repetitive condition of disrupted sleep, which occurs at least three times in a week within a duration of several months. This type of insomnia is more “heavy-weight,” and may be caused by such factors as unhealthy sleep habits, working in shifts for prolonged periods of time (for instance, factory workers or medical staff working at night and having to sleep during the daytime are in the group of risk), the side effects of medications, or chronic disorders, both physical and psychological (National Sleep Foundation). Some specialists also speak of transient insomnia: rare episodes of disrupted sleep that last less than three nights in a week, and do not tend to repeat (Medical News Today). Along with this classification, sleep specialists also talk about primary and secondary insomnia: the former implying that insomnia is a standalone condition not caused by other factors, and the latter meaning that disrupted sleep is caused by an external factor of some kind (WebMD). In particular, these factors can include nasal allergies, gastrointestinal and endocrine problems, arthritis, and other health conditions causing chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, asthma, and a number of neurological conditions (National Sleep Foundation).
So, how does insomnia manifest itself? Most people tend to believe that insomnia is the complete inability to sleep (as in the famous movie “The Machinist” with Christian Bale). However, it is a proven fact that anyone who is deprived of sleep for the duration of 11 days maximum has strong chances to lose his or her mind or even die of exhaustion. Sleep is an important function of our bodies, allowing us to replenish energy, structuring our perception and cognitive processes, and restoring our health. Insomnia is a deprivation of sleep, not its complete absence. Although there may be nights when a person with insomnia is unable to fall asleep, symptoms of insomnia, in general, include intense bouts of sleepiness during the daytime, irritability, the inability to focus on daily tasks or memorize information, and an overall fatigue that does not go away even after sleep (WebMD). And, of course, one should mention sleep disruptions such as the inability to fall asleep, waking up in the middle of the night or much earlier than planned, headaches, and (the cherry on the cake) the fear of sleep (Mayo Clinic). The latter can be explained in different ways, but most likely, this fear is caused not by the sleep itself, but by a person’s expectations about not being able to have a good sleep again. Or, in case a person suffers from the hypnagogic hallucinations (a common phenomena, typical even for healthy people; during hypnagogic hallucinations, a person may hear voices right before falling asleep or after waking up, or experience similar symptoms), he or she may feel afraid of them, and thus avoid falling asleep as long as possible.
Anyways, insomnia is a difficult condition that requires treatment. Nowadays, it is popular among doctors to prescribe pills, helping people with insomnia to fall asleep. However, as usual in cases of psychological and neurological conditions, pills alone cannot be considered a fully adequate treatment. If a person suffers from acute insomnia, relaxation techniques, meditation, walking, hiking, sports, and well-adjusted daily rhythms can help immensely; however, if insomnia is chronic, the aid of a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist might be required, since it is important to figure out whether insomnia has or has not been caused by depression, anxiety disorder, or other dangerous conditions.
Insomnia is a condition during which a person experiences the inability to maintain long, restful sleep. It is not only about sleeping for a short period of time, or waking up often, but also about experiencing fatigue and exhaustion during the daytime, being unable to concentrate and function normally, and feeling irritated and depressed. Repeated episodes of insomnia should be discussed with your local sleep therapist, psychotherapist, or psychiatrist, because relying on sleep pills do not prove to be fully effective in the matter of treating this unpleasant and dangerous condition.
“What Is Insomnia?” National Sleep Foundation, sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/content/what-is-insomnia.
“What Causes Insomnia?” National Sleep Foundation, sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/content/what-causes-insomnia.
“An Overview of Insomnia.” WebMD, www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/insomnia-symptoms-and-causes#1.
M.A., Peter Crosta. “Insomnia: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 20 July 2017, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/9155.php.
“Insomnia.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 15 Oct. 2016, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355167.