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Insomnia: How We Torture Ourselves

Look at the people around you. Who can't stop yawning? The clues are there, it's just that no one likes to admit it. Those who do confess get a barrage of unwanted tips. I have been tempted in the past to punch people who tell me warm baths, and whale music will solve my problems.

How annoyingly appropriate that it's the early hours of the morning and I am writing this blog about insomnia. No I am not trying to get into character to write this piece by deliberately staying awake. I am genuinely having a bad week for sleep. It's partly down to jet lag, excitement about my brother's wedding and stress about the work I have to try and fit in during my travels over the next few weeks.

In short, I can't switch my brain off. Even if I do drift off, it's just a brief respite until I jerk awake, initially disorientated until the millions of thoughts flood back into focus.

We are both the antagonist and the victim when it comes to insomnia.

If you don't know what insomnia is, then you are two things: one, a lucky minority; or two, hated by the majority of us (60 per cent plus) who have suffered from this horrible problem. Insomnia basically means you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or both.

It can be short term or chronic. In both cases it hugely affects quality of life and a person's ability to function. If you clock less than seven hours every night you're more at risk of obesity, diabetes, memory and heart problems. It's no wonder that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture in some countries. For insomnia sufferers, it is sometimes our own subconscious that is torturing us.

Look now at the people around you. How many have long-haul luggage-sized bags beneath their eyes? Who can't stop yawning? Are there a few not firing on all cylinders? We don't walk into work with a sign saying: "I only had three hours last night, so give me a break." The clues are there though. It's just that no one likes to admit it or moan about it because it can be perceived as not being able to cope and none of us like to admit that. Those who do confess get a barrage of unwanted tips. I have been tempted in the past to punch people who tell me hot chocolate, warm baths, and whale music will solve my problems (note: I have actually tried all these things).

So what are the main causes of it? One of them is six letters long, is to blame for many health issues, starts with "ST" and ends with "RESS." Yup, that good old hazard of modern day living, stress. And of course, as with all stress-induced problems, it creates more stress, so you are stressed about being stressed, which causes even more stress. Arggghhhhh!

Depression and anxiety are often to blame for chronic insomnia. Again, one fuelling the other.

Sleep environment is a huge factor. If you've moved next door to a nightclub or train track, your curtains have been stolen and you're sleeping on a couch, you'll know what I mean.

Being female can contribute to sleep troubles as well. As if childbirth, menstruation and menopause weren't bad enough, we're also twice as likely to suffer from insomnia.

Poor sleep habits in the run up to bedtime is another cause. These include doing work before bed (oops), watching TV, having stimulants such as caffeine or alcohol and not having a regular sleep schedule.

During my 16 years as a journalist in both print and television, I have worked every conceivable shift pattern and it's this that caused my regular periods of insomnia. I get paranoid about sleeping in and I get obsessed about having enough sleep to be fresh for doing the work. Both of these are guaranteed to cause insomnia in the first place. How ridiculous does that sound? I need to make sure I get lots of sleep so my body reacts by not sleeping. Thanks body! My solution? Three alarm clocks.

Marriage problems also led to many sleepless nights and a zombie version of myself taking over my life for a while. My solution to that was divorce.

Thankfully there are more helpful solutions out there.

I recently got to know a new mum during the filming of my new health series Buy.o.logic. She hadn't had a decent night's sleep for seven months. I know what you are thinking, but no, her baby wasn't to blame. In fact, she was an incredibly sound sleeper from very early on. This mum was having a brain overload -- the huge responsibility of being a new mum, returning to work and the anticipation of sleepless nights weighed on her. It doesn't really matter what her worries were, it's the fact she had so many that was the catalyst for the vicious cycle of no sleep.

So we went to see a cognitive behavioural therapist to get to the root of the problem. There was a lot of talking, realizations and ultimately tears. Thankfully, recognising her pattern of behaviour helped her tackle her insomnia. The second issue, and it might seem obvious, was her bed. How many of you out there have an ancient mattress you just won't part with? I cannot say strongly enough that you can't afford to NOT buy a decent mattress because the cost to your life is far greater than the dollars you invest in a good bed.

I'm not saying a bed will diminish your stress, but boy will it be a more comfortable place to lie while you stare at the ceiling. I'd love to say more but now I've nearly finished writing, I feel less stressed and more sleepy so if you'll excuse me... zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Isla Traquair is an investigative journalist and host of buy.o.logic on OWN Canada Tuesdays 9.30pm ET/6.30pm PT Repeats Sundays 1:30pm & 6:30pm ET/10:30am & 3:30pm PT

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