Hidden insomnia crisis: 23 million Brits battle sleep issues
Brits are sleepwalking into a health crisis with new starts revealing that nearly 23 million of us are suffering from insomnia.
The figures, from Direct Line Life Insurance’s ‘Need for Sleep’ campaign found that insomnia has risen from 20% before the pandemic to over 40% of the adult population now.
The clinical definition of insomnia is having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or waking early at least three times a week for over three months.
The concerning statistics reveal that a fifth (20%) adults, nearly 11 million people, have been experiencing all three insomnia warning signs for over three months.
The number of Google searches for insomnia has also been on the rise as people look for solutions to their night-time issues, with one in seven turning to medication to help themselves drift off.
Turns out staying asleep seems to be the greatest problem for people with insomnia, with just over a third (35%) of adults consistently struggling to remain asleep through the night.
A further third (33%) find themselves regularly waking earlier than planned while 30% say they take longer than 15 minutes to fall asleep.
Read more: How long should I sleep for? Major study reveals health risks of bad sleeping habits
Why can't we sleep?
Dr Holly Milling, registered clinical psychologist and founder of The Sleep Practice, who partnered with Direct Line for the research, says the last two years have presented a huge range of challenges, including worry, loss and isolation.
"Given that stressful life events are a common trigger for sleep disruption, it’s perhaps not surprising that rates of insomnia in the UK are continuing to soar," she explains.
Miranda Levy, author of The Insomnia Diaries: How I learned to sleep again says that while insomnia rates were already on the rise, the pandemic has no doubt had a role to play.
"Obviously, there have always been certain people who are more susceptible to insomnia," she explains. "Menopausal women, for example, or people with a lot on their plates or those working shift patterns, but the pandemic has left us with a sleep hangover."
Levy says that during the pandemic people lost their daily structures and even though life is returning to normal they haven't returned to their regular routines and this could be impacting sleep.
She also believes an increase in anxiety due to the cost of living crisis is contributing to the nation's sleep issues.
"When you're suffering from anxiety it is generally harder to fall asleep," she explains. "You might also lie awake worrying about things. And with depression you tend to wake up early or in the night with your mind whirring."
A rise in alcohol consumption is another possible explanation.
"I also think people are drinking more, which impacts sleep because your body is still metabolising the alcohol."
The trouble is regularly sleeping less than the recommended eight hours of sleep can have a severe impact on long-term health, affecting our immune system and increasing our risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Read more: This breathing technique could get you to sleep in seconds
Thankfully, there are some steps you can take to tackle insomnia and hopefully achieve a good night's sleep again.
Stick to a sleep routine
Dr Milling suggests getting up at the same time each morning, even at weekends. "This will help to set your body clock for the day and will help your sleep the following night," she says. "Consistency is key."
Ditch the 'can't sleep' mindset
Levy suggests trying to take the pressure off the situation by altering your thoughts and behaviours surrounding sleep. "If you're having a sleepless night, try not to think, 'Oh my god, that's it. I'm never going to sleep again,'" she says. "Instead, tell yourself, 'I'm a good sleeper, I'm just having a bad night.'"
Dr Milling agrees you should try not to panic if you have a bad night. "Having a lie-in or taking a nap to ‘catch up’ can keep a sleep problem going, so go about your day as you planned and try to avoid napping if you can."
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Do a bedtime wind down
Give yourself permission to slow down and unwind at the end of each day. "Switch off work emails and do something relaxing so that your body and mind feel calm and ready for sleep at bedtime," Dr Milling suggests.
Go to bed when you're sleepy
It is important to wait until you start to feel sleepy (and not just tired) before heading to bed, according to Dr Milling.
Read more: This is the secret to a good night's sleep
Fall back in love with your bed
If you wake in the night and can't get back to sleep, don’t let the bed become a battleground with sleep.
"Instead, get up and give yourself permission to do something gentle and enjoyable," suggests Dr Milling. "Wait until you feel sleepy again before heading back to bed."
Get outside early to exercise
Exercising outside in the morning can work wonders for how well you sleep in the evening, according to Levy. "Sunlight affects the melatonin in your brain and helps wake you up," she explains. "So being outside and exercising early is a brilliant tip to aid sleep."
Dr Milling is concerned that with so many people struggling to get healthy sleep, there is a danger that we start to normalise poor sleep.
“We need to ensure we see healthy sleep as the life-sustaining process it is and not a luxury that we can afford to cut," she explains. "The gold standard treatment for insomnia is cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTi) so if you are worried about your sleep, speak to your GP or a sleep specialist.”