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If you have trouble sleeping at night, here’s some news that probably isn’t going to make it any easier on you. According to a study presented this week at the 24th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, people with chronic insomnia are at an increased risk of death compared to people who sleep soundly each night. Not exactly what you want to hear before you tuck yourself in tonight, is it?
Researchers mailed surveys to 2,242 people in 1989, 1994 and 2000 to find out if lack of sleep was shortening their life expectancy. Anyone who reported not sleeping well in more than one survey was classified as having insomnia. The scientists followed up with the participants again in 2009 to find out who was still living. After adjusting for medical conditions, like heart disease, depression, diabetes, stroke and hypertension, researchers found that people with chronic insomnia were three times more likely to die sooner than people without insomnia.
But don’t let this news fill you with dread. Instead, think of it as an, ahem, wake-up call to talk to your doctor about your sleep issues. Chronic insomnia can sometimes be a sign of other conditions like sleep apnea, where the airway temporarily closes and prevents normal breathing, so you’ll want to rule out any medical conditions first.
Chronic insomnia often occurs when you’re worried—either about things you have to do, or whether you’ll catch some zzzs tonight. When I’m particularly stressed out, my sleep suffers—and I’ve had a few bouts of insomnia in my life. I even visited a cognitive-behavioral therapist to learn how to quiet my over-anxious brain. Even though I already knew the advice he was going to give me, he reminded me that it’s not effective unless I practice it. So true. For instance, did you know that we should keep our bedrooms cool, dark and quiet, and only use our bed for sleep and sex? But really—how many of us do that? You aren’t supposed to watch TV, use your laptop or play video games on your iPhone either while you’re in bed because they can be too stimulating. When you are getting ready to sleep, you should be winding down, not up. (Reading is okay.)
My sleep therapist also recommended meditation for insomnia. For me, that has been key. If your mind is racing, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. You can either count your inhales and exhales, or say quietly to yourself, “innnn-hale… exxxxx-hale… innnnn-hale,” or repeat some other mantra, like “peace” or “om.” That’s the crucial step, because when you’re talking to yourself, it’s much harder to think—or obsess. And within five to ten minutes, I’m usually out like a light. You can also download free meditation audio files from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center if you need some help getting started.