Millions of us are struggling to sleep under lockdown – but how can you tell when you have a serious problem with insomnia? And what routines and therapies are available to help? Stylist investigates.
It’s 3am and Rhiannon’s lying in bed, silently panicking in the dark. She’s been tossing, turning and obsessively clock watching for four hours. Every second that ticks by correlates with just how exhausted she’ll be the next day; every little thought that crosses her monkey mind, more intrusive than the last. This isn’t new for Rhiannon - she’s been struggling to sleep for the past few months, “before lockdown, I’d sleep like a log but now it’s the opposite,” she says.
Sharing a tiny flat with three other girls, Rhiannon’s turned her bedroom into a makeshift office which means it’s hard to get sleep off her mind. She says: “In the day, I’m worrying about sleeping and at night I’m worrying about being awake. Most of the time I just feel like a zombie.”
Is there something wrong with me? (Spoiler: probably not)
Rhiannon’s not alone. Half of us have experienced disturbed sleep during lockdown, resulting in ‘insomnia’ and Covid insomnia to be Googled more last year than ever before and the hashtag #notsleeping to start trending. Who can blame us for looking for answers? At its cruelest, a restless night sleep has the power to make us feel inhuman. It affects our concentration, mood, and makes even the simplest of tasks feel monumental.
It doesn’t help that we’ve been brought up to think an easy eight hours is the ultimate wellness accolade; when we don’t get it, not only do we feel like we’re failing, but we start questioning what’s wrong with us – which, according to Dr Zoe Schaedel, co-founder of The Good Sleep Clinic, is probably nothing.
“As well as everyone being different when it comes to how much sleep they need,” she explains, “our sleep cycles naturally vary throughout the month influenced by factors such as stress, sleep environment, light, dietary and exercise habits.” So be it hormonal changes or an uncomfortable bed, Zoe reassures, “it’s completely normal to have a few off night’s sleep in a month.” Turns out, as much as we’d like to flick a switch and turn our lights off for the night, it’s precisely those restless nights which make us human.
We also need to go easy on ourselves when it comes to the pressure we’re putting on ourselves to sleep well; and remember that what we’re through right now with coronavirus and lockdown isn’t normal. There’s already a huge amount of strain on our physical and mental health – we’re dealing with job insecurity, financial worries and childcare demands, we haven’t hugged our family in months and we’re doing all of our living out of the same four walls.
All those factors which cause our sleep cycle to naturally fluctuate are being pushed to their limits. It’s no surprise our bodily rhythms are off kilter and our sleep cycles confused like never before.
When does a restless night’s sleep turn into something more serious like insomnia?
Most often, insomnia is defined as disturbed sleep for at least three nights a week for at least three months. Let’s be clear, one night of bad sleep because of a bad day at work doesn’t classify as insomnia and definitely won’t kill you. It’s really about what happens next, and how we respond to those couple of bad nights, which can turn into longer-term problems. Zoe explains, “in most cases, there’s often an initial trigger which we respond to by making changes in our behaviour and thinking patterns. Our sleep disturbance then starts impacting our everyday and ultimately our mental and physical health.”
For those of us who’ve experienced insomnia, it’s isolating and unpredictable, terrorising you with fear, frustration and madness. I know first hand, suffering huge bouts of insomnia as a child, trapped in the vicious cycle of sleep becoming more elusive, the harder I chased it.
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For chronic insomniacs, the cycle compounds itself, night after night, month after month, and in some cases, year after year. Lara, an ex-housemate, has suffered from varying forms of insomnia for over 20 years. “From difficulty nodding off to waking in the early hours, bad sleep has controlled every part of my life, for as long as I can remember,” she recalls.
In fact, the first story Lara ever told me was about a power nap in the work toilet after being up for three days straight. “During bad episodes, I’m cranky, have no energy to leave the sofa and my performance at work drops,” says Lara.“It’s not just about the amount of hours of sleep you lose, it’s also about the amount of hours of sleep you lose to worry.”
What steps can you take after a few bad nights?
For most of us, readjusting our routine after a few restless nights is enough to put us back on track. Zoe advises, “when our sleep regulation is out of sync, a helpful first step is to look at our sleep hygiene and make sure there are no habits or practices which could be altered to improve the chances of good sleep.”
The most common principles when it comes to sleep hygiene are simple yet effective; stick to a wake-up and bedtime, avoid screens before bed, lay off the caffeine after 2pm and factor in some quality downtime before bed. The most important thing when it comes to introducing or removing routines is to find what works best for you. Take my friend, Jamie. She religiously listens to the shipping forecast before burying her head in the covers and changing her breathing so it’s ‘deep and nose heavy’. Her words not mine.
Another friend has a strict regime of no phones after 7pm, lavender oil in the diffuser and a silk eye mask. My favourite story of all though belongs to Ruby who’d pretty much tried everything when it came to soothing her restless legs at bedtime. One particularly frustrating night, she finally succumbed to her Grandma’s advice. A cup of Horlicks you might think, or, a nice warm bath? No, much stranger. It involved taking a potato to bed (King Edward, uncooked and placed by her feet). And you know what? It worked. Finding what works can be trial and error – take what helps and leave the rest.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help
However, if your sleep problems don’t improve, it’s important to seek professional help. “For ongoing sleep conditions such as insomnia, other treatment such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is often needed,” Zoe says.
I know from experience that often by the time you reach out for help, you’ve pretty much exhausted every option, as well as yourself. But hold on; encouragingly, studies show up to 75% of people with long term poor sleep saw lasting benefits from CBT.
As for me, I count myself as one of the lucky ones. After being awake for most of my adolescence, I somehow freed myself from insomnia’s claws. Don’t ask me how or when – perhaps it was the doctors visits, the patience of my despairing parents, or the disgusting droplets I put under my tongue – but in the same way I’d stopped sleeping, I started sleeping again.
That’s not to say I’ve reached wellness euphoria of a straight eight. Some nights you’ll find me, like Rhiannon, panicking in the darkness at 3am. These days though, I close my eyes, take a breath and try to remember that the next day never turns out half as bad as I’m imagining. Once I’m OK with not being able to sleep, it’s surprisingly easy to drift off.
For more check the NHS site for information on insomnia here
Images: Benjamin Torode on Getty, LaylaBird on Getty, Basak Gurbuz Derman on Getty, StockFour on iStock/Getty, EMS Forster Productions on Getty