Chronic insomnia refers to symptoms that persist nightly for at least six months. For the sleep condition to be referred to as insomnia, it requires three characteristics: (i) poor sleep for at least six months, (ii) daytime impairment, (iii) the inability to be justified by other mental or physical conditions (e.g. asthma, heart disease, bipolar disorder, severe depression etc.).
Studies estimate that 10 to 15% of the population of the United States suffers from insomnia, and percentages in the United Kingdom appear to be similar (Epstein et al, 2006, p. 4). Sleep deprivation affects health and quality of life. People suffering from this condition often rely on drugs such as benzodiazepines and anti-depressants to fall asleep, although these medications have numerous negative side effects in the long term (Christensen & Feldman 2003, p. 271). There are numerous consequences to sleep depravation. The example of Randy Gardner, who managed to stay awake for 11 days, illustrates some of these. After the second day, Mr. Gardner suffered from nausea, irritability and memory loss; after the fourth day he suffered from obsessions and unbearable tiredness, finally, as the days went on, he was afflicted by tremors and could no longer hold a conversation.
This is an extreme example, however. It clearly shows the importance of sleep in assuring the good-enough functioning of the body and mind.
Research on Insomnia
Medical research shows that insomnia is most generally caused by ‘stress’. Stress is the over-activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System, which results in a ‘flight or fight’ response causing certain organs in the body to be over-stimulated and constantly active, lacking rest. It seems to be a fact in the medical field that not sleeping has a negative impact on the body and psyche due to its restorative nature. One of the processes sleep is involved in is the consolidation of many aspects of our conscious daily life in deeper levels of the brain (e.g. long-term memory). Studies also show that insomnia has dramatically increased over the years, that it is most common in indrustrialised countries and that the risk of insomnia increases with age.
Treatment can involve the use of sleeping tablet medication such as benzodiazepines and antidepressants that help fall asleep and maintain sleep. Although very helpful in the short-term, these medications often have numerous side effects and can cause severe drug dependence.
Cognitive behavioural therapy and hypnotherapy have shown to be very effective in the treatment of chronic insomnia. The goal of therapy is to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that may contribute to the insomnia. Hypnotherapy also uses relaxation techniques to help clients learn ways to relax and fall asleep.
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- Find a therapist
Bear, M. F., Connors B. W., Paradiso, M. A. (2007) Neuroscience: Exploring the brain. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkin
Christensen, J. F., Feldman M.D. (2003) Behavioral Medicine in Primary Care. 2nded. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Education.
Epstein, L., Mardon, S. (2006) The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep. London: McGraw-Hill Education.