How to get to sleep

Image of Dr Simon Kyle
By Dr Simon Kyle

“I can't get to sleep”

Sleep problems affect 1 in 3 of us at any one time, and about 10% of the population on a chronic basis. Problems getting to sleep will be familiar to most of us at one point or another – lying there, staring at the ceiling, just willing your eyes to shut whilst the clock counts round. For most people this is associated with a period of stress or excitement – an important meeting at work or a big event like a wedding for example. Once that stress has passed, it is once again possible to get to sleep quickly.

However for some people this problem persists – every day worrying “am I ever going to get to sleep tonight?”, and most nights lying awake frustrated, just wishing for some help to get back to sleep. This is a subtype of insomnia, referred to as 'Difficulty Initiating Sleep' in the official DSM-IV manual of psychiatric disorders. In the recent Great British Sleep Survey (GBSS), approximately 13% of all chronic poor sleepers experienced only problems with getting to sleep, while approximately 60% experienced problems with both falling asleep and staying asleep. The inability to initiate sleep can be very distressing at night-time but also has consequences for the daytime – reducing daytime energy, concentration and mood. For some people this trouble getting to sleep persists for years or even decades. Indeed, 45% of all poor sleepers in the GBSS had suffered sleep disturbance for more than 6 years.

So, how do you get to sleep more easily?
For short-term problems there are a number of ways to get to sleep more easily. Sleep medication can be effective, although for some these can cause side effects the next day, and cannot be taken for longer than a couple of weeks. Guided relaxation techniques such as Progressive Relaxation and Imagery can also be helpful for acute problems with getting to sleep. Other sleep aids may also be of use.

However for longer-term problems with getting to sleep Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown to be most effective and is recommended by NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence), the body that advises the NHS. Our own Sleepio course features CBT techniques and was shown in trials to reduce the average time taken to fall asleep by 50% over a six week period in a group of long-term poor sleepers. Although CBT for insomnia is not readily available on the NHS such online programs and other self-help materials are now allowing a wider audience to access such evidence-based therapies, and hopefully help them get to sleep faster and with less worry.

Filed under: Sleep Tips