You toss. You turn. You stare at the clock and count down the minutes as morning creeps up.
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If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders, says Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, DO, director of Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center. There is hope, though — and it starts with knowing the facts.
Insomnia is widespread — and so are the consequences
Just how widespread? “Insomnia affects as many as 15 to 20 percent of adults on a chronic basis,” says Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer. Many cases go undiagnosed and untreated.
Insomnia affects your quality of life. It spills into your day as you struggle with fatigue and decreased attention. It is associated with depression, bipolar disorder and other conditions. On top of that, insomnia often is tied to substance-abuse problems.
There are many types of insomnia
For some, insomnia means trouble going to sleep. Others have no problem falling asleep but wake up in the middle of the night and cannot go back to sleep. Still others never fall deep enough asleep to get the rest they need.
Cases of insomnia vary. So does how much sleep you need. Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says the idea that everyone needs eight hours a night is an old wives’ tale. Unfortunately, believing it can make you even more anxious. “Some people need less sleep — and it does not help to lie in bed and worry about how little you are getting,” she says.
“You have to protect your sleep. It’s such an important part of your health.”
Acute and chronic insomnia are different
Acute insomnia can come with a shock or change: a medical diagnosis that shakes you up or a big social change like moving or changing jobs. These are typically short-term, though. Practicing smart sleep hygiene may provide relief.
Chronic insomnia is different. If you experience symptoms that last longer than a month or so, see a sleep professional.
Medication can turn an acute case into a chronic case
When sleep won’t come, don’t automatically turn to medications. Over-the-counter options such as Benadryl or self-medication with alcohol may seem to help, but they don’t enhance the quality of your sleep. And although prescriptions such as Ambien may offer short-term relief, the long-term concern of dependency may outweigh the benefits in some cases.
“People start to think they have to reach for something to get to sleep at night,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says. When that happens, an acute case of insomnia can easily become chronic.
Therapy can help you change sleep habits
Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says cognitive behavioral therapy is probably the most effective treatment for chronic insomnia. The goal of this ongoing therapy is to get people to change their thinking and behavior related to sleep. A therapist may have you keep a sleep diary, educate you about sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques, and encourage good habits that last your whole life.
If there is a sleep psychologist in your area, ask for a referral. But they are not widespread, which is why there are other options, too, including online programs such as Cleveland Clinic’s Go! to Sleep.
“You have to protect your sleep,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says. “It’s such an important part of your health.”