Few people think about insomnia until they have it. We want to raise awareness of sleep even in people who are getting plenty of good sleep every night, so that you appreciate when you are getting good sleep and take steps to avoid insomnia. Even a couple nights of bad sleep can spark a downward spiral of adjustment and rumination resulting in psychophysiological insomnia.
The first thing to look at is always sleep hygiene and making a good environment for sleep. If your circumstances change and you need to adjust your bedroom curtains or wake-up time,
Be careful to avoid spending too much time in bed. That could lead to expectations of longer sleep times that your body and brain don’t really need.
A lot of the recommendations for preventing insomnia could fall under the rubric of sleep hygiene. Let’s call out a few:
- Avoid exercise too close to bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine too close to bedtime.
- Don’t nap during the day
- Get up at the same time every day, including weekends or days when you don’t work.
- Stick to a regular work schedule – this can be impossible if you are on a rotating shift. But if you are on a steady shift, even a swing shift or night (graveyard) shift, you can try to stick to it, even on days off, as uncomfortable as that might be for your friends and family.
Another thing we like to recommend is maintaining a sleep diary even when you are sleeping well. You don’t have to do this indefinitely – just for about a week every once and a while when sleep is going well. That way, you will have a reference for when sleep goes awry. You will be able to look back at your exercise, eating, noise levels and temperature in the room, rising and retiring times.
Avoiding insomnia requires avoiding the other factors that lead to or exacerbate sleep difficulties. These are generally things you want to avoid anyway. Be aware that your tolerance and sensitivity to other factors may change as you age. Some people, for instance, find themselves bedeviled by late afternoon or evening caffeine when they hit middle age even though it didn’t bother them when they were younger. Same with exercise in the evening.
It’s important to note that insomnia definitions have changed in recent years. For decades, the disorder was subdivided into two groups based on cause. Primary insomnia referred to insomnia symptoms that developed independently. Secondary insomnia, on the other hand, was caused by illnesses, injuries, medication side effects, and other factors. As of 2015, both primary and secondary insomnia have been consolidated beneath the ‘insomnia’ umbrella. The logic behind this reorder: because insomnia is a serious disorder, treatment should be considered a top priority whether the symptoms have occurred independently or as a result of other factors.
Gretchen Rubin’s well known Happiness Project blog lists getting enough sleep as a “fundamental secret to happiness“. Her project is about taking proactive steps to increase happiness. Being proactive in preventing insomnia is part of the game.