The State of Sleepless Nights: Insomnia

Visualize yourself in a state without sleep. Nights where you have nothing to do as you lie awake while most of your family and friends sleep away to glory. At first, this idea may seem amazing. Later, however, you may wonder about how to pass the time. You might venture into reading a book, watching a movie, drawing, painting, writing, and everything else that interests you or helps you trudge though the hours. Imagine not knowing what sleep feels like, to have the very word erased from your dictionary.

What is a thought experiment for you, is very real for some people. For the rest of the world, sleep is an experience that they await, but for them, it is something they just cannot grasp. But what exactly is this state of sleeplessness? Is it normal? Has the world given this condition a name? This is insomnia, the state of sleepless nights.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, insomnia is the difficulty in falling asleep or staying asleep, even when a person has the chance to do so. People with insomnia can feel dissatisfied with their sleep and usually experience one or more of the following symptoms: fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, and decreased performance at work or at school (if you’re getting sleep but still experiencing these symptoms, it’s probably your college, grades, and marks– not insomnia).

The actual causes vary from medical conditions to biological factors. It is linked with sleep apnea, a condition wherein the oxygen levels drop, leading to difficulty in breathing. As a result, the person wakes up briefly but repeatedly throughout the night. Insomnia is also caused because of depression, anxiety, lifestyle, substances like caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, heavy meals, and by certain neurotransmitters in the brain.

Now, there are various forms of insomnia but it is generally classified as acute and chronic. Acute insomnia lasts for a short while, and is a common experience before an exam, due to change in work schedule or simply because something is disturbing one’s equanimity. Chronic insomnia on the other hand is a state of long-term difficulty in sleep patterns i.e a person observing this pattern for at least 3 nights per week for 3 months or longer.

It is believed that this is a common problem faced by adults. The National Institute of Health estimates that roughly 30 percent of the general population suffers from sleep disruption. Though 30% seems small, the actual numbers are huge– 30% of 7 billion is by no means a small number. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder in the US, with almost 40 billion Americans experiencing it annually. In India, there are more than 10 million cases per year. People who experience this state usually undergo treatment for sleep improvement by keeping a track of it, using sleeping pills, and through therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Light Therapy.

The daily struggle of people with this sleep disorder is beautifully illustrated in one of the article’s in The Guardian, written by Mark Rice-Oxley, who describes how insomnia affected his life. “It’s about 3.20 am. I know this not because I’ve checked the clock recently – I just know it’s about 3.20 am. Let’s add it up: went to bed at 10.30 pm, read for a bit, lights out, turned over a few dozen times (midnight), moved upstairs to avoid waking my wife, meditated for half an hour (12:45 am), tried again, turning and turning (1:45 am), went to look at the sleeping children, turned the pillows over to find the cool side (2:15 am), put pyjamas on (2:45 am), turned over on to my front to try and squash myself to sleep, tried sitting up, kneeling, and – in a moment of absurdity – tried going to sleep standing up. So that would make it past 3 am. I fight the urge to check the clock. It always says terrible things like 03:38, or 04:29 and never 22:17. Checking the clock just amplifies the anguish that I am awake, have been for hours and will be, quite possibly, for ever. What a fictional horror that would make: someone who has forgotten how to sleep.”

So the next time you try to fight sleep at night, try to embrace it instead. Remember, there are scores of people out there, fighting their insomnia just to catch a few winks of that precious sleep.

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