By Steven Shukor
Sleeping in the sticky, summer heat is trouble enough for most, but for the 10 million people in the UK affected by insomnia it is even harder. Here one woman who has struggled with sleep for years tells how she copes with sleepless nights.
Anna no longer wants to rely on sleeping pills
It was while lying awake one night, after three days without sleep, that Anna Musgrave considered her most extreme option.
No sleep for days on end had become a bit of a routine. Usually by day three her body was so exhausted that sleep came, but not on this occasion.
She nudged her boyfriend in a discreet attempt to wake him. She could no longer bear being awake. The herbal teas, the pills, were not working. She was desperate.
"He offered to punch me out and I remember thinking that wouldn't be such a bad idea," she says.
Anna, 28, from Bere Ferrers, in Devon, has suffered from sleeping problems since the age of six. It is something that runs in her family and she believes it is partly down to them moving around a lot when she was young.
One Christmas she remembers her excitement being shattered after being told Father Christmas didn't visit children who were not asleep by midnight.
"My main problem is anxiety around sleep, not sleep itself," says Anna. "I have an emotional reaction to being woken up."
It's one of anger and desperation because she then panics she will not be able to fall asleep again. Noise, pressure at work and personal problems are the main factors which have disrupted her sleep throughout her adult life.
Go to bed at the same time each night
Avoid having a TV in the bedroom
Get moderate exercise daily
Try a milky drink before bed
Avoid too much alcohol
Avoid eating or drinking a lot late at night
Try relaxing with yoga, hypnosis or listening to music
Professor David Oakley, a clinical psychologist and director of the hypnosis unit at University College London (UCL), says in such circumstances the less you sleep, the more anxious you become.
"Not managing to sleep becomes something of a habit," he says. "It raises your anxiety and evolves into a vicious circle."
There are more than 80 recognised sleep problems, with insomnia - the inability to get to sleep or stay asleep once you've dropped off - being one of the most common. An estimated 10 million people in the UK are affected by it.
Anna's worst bout of insomnia was when she was working as an English teacher in Puebla, eastern Mexico. She describes the feeling of going days without sleep as similar to a hangover.
"It's horrible. I would go into auto-pilot. I was operating on nervous energy. You feel queasy. I wouldn't feel sleepy. Your only desire is to see the day through."
If she couldn't fall asleep on the third night, she felt like she was going mad.
"It's really maddening not being able to sleep when the person next to you is sleeping soundly. I would generally be wide awake, alert, really keyed up."
She reached for so-called "soft" sleeping aids, such as the herbal remedy Valerian, Nightol and antihistamines. But she also developed a routine aimed at relaxing herself before sleep, keeping to a regular bedtime, drinking herbal tea and reading.
But when even double doses started to lose their effect Anna turned to the cold and flu remedy Night Nurse. She developed a mild dependency on it for several years and says she would rely on it to sleep during acute periods of stress.
"I remember thinking 'oh good I've got a cold coming', I can take Night Nurse," she says. "People who clearly didn't suffer from insomnia looked at me as if I was a drug addict."
Last year she decided she no longer wanted to rely on pills or Night Nurse for sleep and, like some of the millions who suffer from insomnia, decided to become "more creative" about sleep aids.
Acupuncture yielded good results at first but, as with everything else she has tried, it lost its effect before long. She turned to the web to research hypnosis, and tried hypnotherapy audio books.
Initially these have given her some satisfaction.
One CD, by hypnotherapist Glenn Harrold, consists of a carefully narrated script, gentle synthetic music, and sound effects - all attempting to relax the listener in bed.
"The aim is to slow down the listener's thoughts and body machinery," says Harrold, who is based in Maidstone, Kent.
Once the listener is in a relaxed state, he gives them hypnotic suggestions such as "as soon as your head touches the pillow at night, you will feel sleepy". The listener is asked to repeat certain phrases like "I feel safe and secure at night" and "I continue to sleep well at night".
"I get them to draw these affirmations inside of them. It has a hypnotic effect," he says.
These suggestions are designed to become cue words for the listener, who after repeated listening, should respond to them automatically. The more you hear the book, the more effective it is.
The acid test came a few weeks ago when Anna - a charity worker - organised a week-long general assembly for Peace Brigades International. It was a high-pressure project involving long hours and little sleep, so it was essential that she slept soundly when she did get to bed.
"The effects weren't instant because of the buzz of trying something new. But since then it has worked. The major change is how I react to being woken up.
"I wake up but I don't have all the anxiety, anger or tension I used to feel. I just go back to sleep again. I haven't taken Night Nurse in three months. That's unheard of for me."
As with everything else Anna has tried, she fears the hypnosis CD's effects will wear off over time. But hypnotherapy may offer her future options.
While satisfied with some sleep in the short term, she nevertheless sighs wearily: "I will, undoubtedly, have sleep problems again."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I have suffered from much the same thing since I was 18: days without sleep, mental hyperactivity starting just when the rest of me is getting drowsy. Anxiety and maybe a fear of sleep seem to be the causes for me. My GP - and a company doctor (oh dear) at one point - didn't really believe me, I thought.
As a practicing Hypnotherapist I haven't encountered a client who noticed the effect of Hypnosis wearing off with time. In fact I would venture to suggest that the opposite is true and each experience reinforces the suggestions and deepens the effects next time around.
If the lady was a client of mine I would perhaps have gone one step further and removed the anxiety surrounding the issue at a 1-1 session before the use of the CD.
David Laing, Liverpool UK
I can totally identify with Anna- with almost exactly the same treatments, Valerian extra strength, Nightol and Night Nurse. Nothing works and I just live with it now..I get an average of 2 hours a night or every other night..hypnosis didnt work for me. So- I have just accepted that I dont sleep like normal people.
Helen Dean, London
A good friend of mine had/has insomnia, and what helped him most was when he came to the realisation that he was addicted to insomnia! He liked the stress! Once he realised this he understood that like all addictions, there would be times when he craved, and he just stayed calm.
Omar, Sheffield, UK
I have found the best way to beat insomnia is by during regular exercise. Regular as in at least 45 min cardio exercise 4 times per week. Preferably after the days work. You will feel 10 times better and a hundred times more relaxed..
Bruce C, Geneva, Switzerland
I too suffered from insomnia, especially when deadlines at work drew close or if I was unhappy with something in my personal life. I found out that meditating at night just before sleeping and then having a cup of warm milk helped a lot. Basically i had to relax my mind and that would then automatically relax my body and I slept deeply.
Vicky, Santa Clara, USA
I find that melatonin works great for me. Melatonin supplementation has not shown any undesired side effects. Identified in 1963, melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland that helps bring on sleep. Many people do not secrete sufficient amounts, especially as they grow older, for sound sleep.
DD, Orlando, USA
Insomnia runs in my husband's family, so I can sympathize. But it isn't just the insomniac that suffers! Imagine someone asking you how old your baby was when it first slept through the night, and having to respond, she never did, and she is now 20. She seems to do fine, catching up when she needs to, but the rest of us have been zombies, never sleeping more than 3 hours at a time until she got old enough to feel comfortable awake when the rest of us were asleep. When she visits, we still don't get more than 5 hours at a stretch. Only our love and compassion for her keeps us going.
Margaret, Houston, USA
Anna, I mostly run a very close second to you in terms of tried methods of quality sleep. Even the stimulus of an evening 'phone call will ruin the night! Was very interested in what you call your'emotional' response to being disturbed and I can date this identical reaction to when my children were babies. My cat has produced the same angry reaction in the night, and this is now 32 years on!
Carol Preston, Loughton, England
As an insomnian myself, I really emphasised with Anna in this article. I completely know what she means about surviving on nervous energy and the desperation felt after several nights of no sleep. I found doctors weren't particularly helpful or sympathetic and instead looked to alternatives. Yoga has been an immense helps, especially the breathing and meditation techniques it teaches, and taking aloe vera juice has also helped. Lavender oil on my pillow can sometimes help too. My sympathies are with anyone else in this situation.
I read this article this morning, and if I might make a suggestion to Anna to take up Yoga & Meditation. Quitening the mind sounds easy but it's not and the pace at which we conduct our lives is not condusive to shutting down like a massive generator in over load!. I've always been a light sleeper but practising yoga has helped enormously.
Catherine, Connecticut, USA
I have a pair of 'mind machine' glasses, which pulse light and sound and bring your brainwaves down into beta states.
They certainly do the trick ... if a little expensive and slightly silly, they do help when under stress.
Search for 'mind machines' on any search engine. Expect to pay over £100 for a good pair.
Spencer Steel, Watford
One method not mentioned is Paradoxical Intention, first suggested by Viktor Frankl, in his Logotherapy. Stop trying to sleep. Try staying awake! That takes away the intention and anxiety that goes with trying to sleep. The subject will get natural sleep. He or she will re-establish a natural sleep pattern.No one can stay awake forever, it is physiologically impossible. It is the fear of not able to sleep that keeps them awake.
David Yeung, Vancouver, Canada
Has Anna tried eliminating sugar from her diet? It always stops me sleeping if I have any dessert in the evening, and if I don't have any at all during the day I am guaranteed a good night's sleep, even if I have had one cup of strong coffee for breakfast. I discovered this after years of trying all kinds of alternative things.
Julia Williams, :London
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