Understanding insomnia and sleep problems
What is insomnia?
Sleep is the body’s regeneration mechanism. Although it might seem that the body simply switches off when we sleep, in fact it is a time of intense activity, both physical and mental. For example, proteins are laid down during sleep, and growth hormone (one of several hormones produced at night) governs the growth of children while they sleep. And we now believe that while we sleep our brain organises our thoughts into retrievable patterns, much like a library.
So sleep is not just the absence of wakefulness. Nor is sleep a constant state. While we sleep our brain activity varies, and there are various clearly identifiable stages of sleep. These vary from person to person, and also between young and old, but essentially they consist of:
- Stage 1: a transitional stage between being awake and being asleep, lasting only a few minutes
- Stage 2: a stage characterized by muscle relaxation and slow, rolling eye movements. This stage is also relatively short
- Stages 3 and 4: deeper levels of sleep, the difference between them being the presence of a greater proportion of a particular kind of brain wave in stage 4 than in stage 3
- REM sleep: characterized by very rapid movements of the eyes while the rest of the body is almost completely still. This is the stage during which most dreaming takes place.
Insomnia is essentially the inability to sleep.Disturbance of these normal patterns of sleep can have a number of different causes. Most of us will experience times when we sleep less well, and this might be to do with events in our everyday life such as work-related or relationship problems, or environmental disturbances such as noisy neighbours or exceptionally warm weather. However, when these irritants are removed, we usually go back to our normal sleep patterns quite easily. When this isn’t the case, we can be said to suffer from one of a number of sleep disorders.
How can insomnia be treated?
Insomnia has traditionally been treated in the GP’s surgery by the prescription of sleeping pills. These are effective to a degree, in that they almost always result in sleep. However, while they are not seen as longterm solutions, they may be difficult to give up. In addition, many of them also lead to withdrawal symptoms; and patients often find themselves back in their doctor’s surgery with sleeplessness again. Some over-the-counter remedies don’t have the same side-effects, but nor are they clinically proven to be effective other than as placebos (in other words they act by suggestion). Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), on the other hand, has been found to be a very effective longterm solution, and is now the treatment of choice for insomnia. As many as three-quarters of people with persistent insomnia have found lasting benefit from CBT.
Overcoming Insomnia and Sleep Problems is a self-help programme, based on CBT, and derived from clinical treatments that have seen a great many patients who thought they would never be able to sleep well make huge improvements in the pattern and quality of their sleep. For more about the book and other self-help resources >
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