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Insomnia and how to get a better night's sleep

Do you find you go to bed tired yet struggle to sleep? Maybe you fall asleep easily but wake up for long periods during the night? It can be frustrating not to sleep when you want to, and you can quickly become exhausted.

When you aren’t sleeping properly, it can have a big impact on how you feel and behave. You might find it difficult to concentrate, become easily irritated, feel short-tempered, or have a low mood. You might find you eat more, or you become hyperactive as you try to compensate for the lack of sleep. If this sounds familiar, then you may have insomnia.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a 'persistent difficulty with sleep initiation, duration, consolidation or quality'. Having trouble getting to sleep initially when you go to bed is often referred to as sleep-onset insomnia. In contrast, sleep maintenance insomnia describes when people struggle to stay asleep. Even people who sleep easily may have insomnia if they find they often wake up feeling tired because sleep quality is poor.

When we sleep, we go through multiple sleep cycles, each of which comprises different sleep stages. The most commonly known stage is probably REM. Still, we also go through periods of deeper restorative sleep and lighter sleep when we are easily woken.

To have good quality sleep, we need to spend enough time in each sleep stage. We also need to go from one sleep cycle to the next without becoming too disturbed, as this can lead to waking up fully and being unable to get back to sleep. 

Insomnia can last for short periods or be experienced long term. When it is experienced for more extended periods, it is called chronic insomnia. Short term insomnia is often linked to an obvious cause like pregnancy or worrying about a job interview. It usually goes away on its own.

However, suppose you suffer from problems sleeping regularly. In that case, you may need help identifying the causes and finding ways to improve your sleep. 

Signs you have insomnia

You could have insomnia if you have one or more of these symptoms: 

  • you struggle to fall asleep
  • you wake up in the night or early morning, and you can’t get back to sleep
  • you wake up naturally in the morning but still feel exhausted
  • you are unable to nap in the day despite being tired
  • you are so tired in the day you can’t concentrate properly

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia has many different causes but they all essentially cause the body to be in a state of hyper-arousal so that you can’t 'switch off' fully to sleep. This could be caused by something environmental, physiological, psychological or a combination of factors. It could be as simple as your room being too hot at night, drinking too much caffeine or more complex factors such as illness, medication, anxiety or depression.

How to treat insomnia without medication

While you can get over the counter or prescribed medication to help you sleep, these aren’t ideal long-term options to treat insomnia. The side effects of sleeping pills mean GPs generally avoid prescribing them and are likely to suggest therapeutic support instead.

For people experiencing chronic insomnia, identifying what is causing it and making changes is often successful. When the cause can’t be prevented, you can learn techniques to help you get more sleep. 

Quick fixes for insomnia

While minor changes are most likely to be effective if you are experiencing short term insomnia, it is worth considering simple changes you can make and see if they work for you.

There are lots of changes you can try, but a few things to consider are:

1. Review your sleeping environment

If you feel physically comfortable, you are more likely to sleep well. Of course, we are all different, but consider the temperature of your room, the duvet and what you are wearing. Is your room dark enough, and are you being disturbed by noises (or by it being too quiet)?

2. Plan for a good night’s sleep

Sleeping well isn’t just about what happens when your head hits the pillow. It’s about what you do in the day, too. It can help to make sure you are active during the day.

For an hour or two before you want to sleep, you should allow yourself to relax, avoid work, exercise or anything which might overstimulate you. You might find you benefit from avoiding screens before bed, too, as the light they emit can make your brain think it’s daytime. 

3. Food and drink

It can be a difficult balance to make sure you don’t eat or drink too much close to bedtime, but to have enough, so you aren’t disturbed by thirst or hunger when you want to be asleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, you might want to try cutting out alcohol and avoiding caffeine completely or drinking it in the mornings only. Foods containing high levels of tryptophan may support the hormones which regulate sleep. So, if you need a snack close to bedtime, it is worth trying whole-grain toast with nut butter or a glass of milk.


Reviewing your current sleep practices and making changes like the ones suggested above can help you to get a better night's sleep. But, if these don’t help, there are plenty of other options available to you.

Hope Therapy offer counsellor-supported online programmes through full counselling, CBT or hypnotherapy services, depending on your need. Where we think there may be a medical cause of insomnia, we will signpost you to your GP for further help while working to teach you techniques such as relaxation, stimulus control or biofeedback where appropriate.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Wantage OX12 & Rickmansworth WD3

Written by Ian Stockbridge

Wantage OX12 & Rickmansworth WD3

Ian Stockbridge is the founder and lead counsellor at Hope Therapy and Counselling Services. 

As an experienced Counsellor, Ian recognised a huge societal need for therapeutic services that were often not being met. As such 'Hope' was born and its counselling team offers counselling and therapeutic support throughout the UK and abroad.

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