Insomnia reaches epidemic proportions

Insomnia is blamed on 24/7 lifestyles, technology, and our inability to switch off. Photo / Getty Images
Insomnia is blamed on 24/7 lifestyles, technology, and our inability to switch off. Photo / Getty Images

Dreaming wistfully of a good night's rest? You're not alone: insomnia has reached epidemic proportions.

As I write this, it is turning noon. I am exhausted. My mind runs through the verbal alternatives - done in, beat, dead, shattered, jiggered, drained, wiped, consumed, finished, spent - and settles on what the OED informs me is its British vulgar slang option: buggered.

My skin is stretched taut over my cheeks, charcoal smudged under each eye. I am shivery, a tightly wound neurotic; yet vague, mentally clouded, doomy with apprehension and jittery with caffeine.

Insomnia is always different, always the same. Last night, I was in nightmare mode. I woke five times, at the end of every sleep cycle, wild-eyed and terrified.

This nightmare-based insomnia is the most punishing of the sleep disorders I have experienced since childhood. There is also a good deal of traditional insomnia, what I think of as the stoical person's panic attack: that lacerating, mind-perpetually-racing, not-falling-asleep-until-dawn-when-all-hope-of-a-normal-day-is-gone guise.

There will be long weeks of morning insomnia - the depressive's choice - lunging early into sleep, then waking at 4am, despairing that is one's lot.

I am no less hypersomniac, subject to daytime sluggishness and a desire to slumber in great gluts. I could sleep at any hour of the day: day sleep being becalmed, indulgent, medicinal, unlike the ragged, angsty non-rest of dark. But I do not allow myself to since - like all creatures of the night - I endeavour to observe rigorous "sleep hygiene".

This method - in which the insomniac disciplines herself to a regular waking pattern with a view to establishing a corresponding sleeping routine - will be one of a catalogue of solutions.

I have tried hot baths, warm milk, caffeine bans, lavender, camomile, valerian, magnesium, calcium, cherry capsules, alcohol, Nytol, melatonin, antidepressants, massage, intercourse, foot patches, aromatherapeutic oils, eye masks, earplugs, state-of-the-art clocks, open windows, electric blankets and a small chunk of amethyst clutched in the palm. Psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, yoga, exercise, nutritional approaches, hypnosis, nature noises, sound-wave technology and sleep hypnogram apps have also featured. I have consulted experts and attended sleep lessons - anything, in fact, to relieve me of my jagged, forever slightly spinning daytime existence - and all to no avail.

It has become one of Western culture's most cherished neuroses that we exist in a constant state of sleep deprivation: which is not to say that this is not the case. Hours are notched up where once we might have totted up calories. Magazine covers that used to holler "hot sex" now lure us in with promises of "deep sleep".

Insomnia is widely considered an epidemic, with scientists increasingly unearthing dire implications for sufferers' physical and mental health, weight and life expectancy. Popular culture blames our 24/7 lifestyles, technology, and our inability to switch off brains.

Professor Colin Espie at Oxford's Nuffield Department of Clinical Neuroscience looks deeper: "Most people have an easier life than they would have 100 years ago.

"The problems we have now are more self-inflicted. We put ourselves under a huge amount of pressure and fail to take full advantage of having more free time to live a full and healthy life. We are victims of failed expectations and disappointments, and we end up with a lot of essentially psychological problems."

Physiologist Dr Guy Meadows, founder of London's Sleep School, concurs: "I see clients who have completely stopped living their lives in the hope of controlling their sleep. They have given up working to avoid stress, stopped socialising to avoid being out late, stopped going away on holiday or staying with family for fear of not being able to sleep in a foreign environment, and even chosen not to have children for fear of being bad parents."

Huw Morgan, a 41-year-old researcher, is a lifelong insomniac. "I think it is a bit like anorexia in that it's an inability to do something quite simple, vital and instinctive that most people take for granted. You can feel as if you are going genuinely mad, something tied into the loneliness, depression and anxiety inherent in the condition - as if your mind is broken and leaking all over the place at 4.30am."

Science is forever looking for solutions. Meadows advocates an "acceptance technique": he is the first to apply the lessons of ACT, or acceptance and commitment therapy, to sleep. His work centres on a mindful approach, with clients sitting - or rather lying - with and even "befriending" the mind's demons. His axiom is that while sleeplessness is outside our control, one can control one's reaction to it - which can, in turn, break insomnia's vicious cycle. His success rate is impressive: 87 per cent of patients reported significant improvement (with 10 per cent not responding).

Espie is a co-founder of the online sleep-improvement programme Sleepio.com. He tells me: "The most effective treatment for poor sleep, by far, is cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT - a psychotherapeutic approach that addresses behaviours and thought processes through goal-oriented, systematic procedures]."

In time, everyone patches together their own semi-solutions. I say semi because, for too many of us, the idea that there exists some sort of cure remains a naive fantasy. One gets better at handling sleep disorder; there are good and bad phases.

"I've accepted it - which you have to, otherwise it gets worse," says Morgan. "I treat it like a minor illness."

In my own case, I try to sit with my insomnia; learn its lessons, if any; pile on the under-eye concealer. In the end, I find I come back to Prospero's closing acceptance of Caliban in The Tempest: "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine."

Dying to sleep

• In December 2011, Antonio Horta-Osorio, chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, was famously forced to take several weeks' leave after a bout of particularly torturous insomnia.

• In July, Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern Moritz Erhardt, 21, died after working until 6am three days in a row, having slogged throughout the night eight times in two weeks.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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