“The problem goes far beyond simple fatigue.” Chronic insomnia impacts physical health, cognitive function, decision making, and mood.

From time to time, almost everyone has trouble sleeping. Although frustrating, occasional bouts of insomnia are expected and manageable. But for people with chronic insomnia, the problem goes beyond simply feeling exhausted for a few days or needing a double espresso in the afternoon to get to the end of the day. work.

Rachel Mills, the producer of a new film, “The Quest for Sleep,” says, “Before making the film, I thought of insomnia as a nighttime problem. I was surprised at its impact on people throughout their daytime hours. Chronic insomnia interferes with a person’s ability to function in their daily life and affects their relationship with friends, family and co-workers.

In the film, narrated by Octavia Spencer, Mills follows several people affected by chronic insomnia, including “Big Steve”, a psychotherapist named Margaret and Kelly, a nurse.

“We wanted to show the diversity of insomnia. Every story we tell shows the struggle when you can’t turn off your brain and get the sleep your body needs,” says Mills. “A common theme for all chronic insomnia sufferers is that the problem goes far beyond simple fatigue.”

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Define chronic insomnia

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) defines insomnia as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep that is accompanied by daytime disturbances related to these sleep disorders. Chronic insomnia occurs when a person has problems sleeping at least three days a week for more than three months or repeated episodes over the years. It is believed that 10-15% of people suffer from chronic insomnia disorder. Insomnia is more common in women than in men.

There are different causes of insomnia, including stress, mental health issues (anxiety or depression), physical pain, medical issues, and sleep disorders (sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome). With chronic insomnia, sleep itself becomes a source of anxiety.

Mills says, “Once people start having trouble sleeping, they can develop anxiety about sleep, which exacerbates the problem.”

Dr. Michael Grandner, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist and sleep expert who appears in the film, explains, “Sleep is a universal need. During our lifetime, we develop a relationship with sleep. When this relationship is healthy, we see our bed at night and our sleep response kicks in. We associate our bed with rest. But when a person suffers from insomnia, the bed can become a trigger. The person begins to anticipate that they will have trouble sleeping and they worry that they won’t sleep and then they can’t sleep.

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How sleep changes with age

Insomnia becomes more common after age 60. “As you get older, you tend to wake up more throughout the night with aches, pains, or due to hormonal changes,” says Grandner. “As you age, sleep tends to get shallower and people have less REM sleep. The number of hours you sleep doesn’t change much with age, but the quality does.

Bad sleep-related habits can accumulate throughout a person’s lifetime. An example in the film is the story of Margaret. Her insomnia began when her daughter was born.

Mills explains, “Margaret constantly worried about the baby, listening to him all night. She started sleeping lighter, not falling into deep sleep and this problem persisted even though her daughter is now an adult.

Not getting enough sleep can impact a person’s mental and physical health. “For people age 65 and younger, sleeping six hours a night or less is correlated with weight gain and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes,” says Grandner. “It can also impact cognitive function, decision-making, and mood.”

A silver lining is that the older you get, the less sleep you need.

“In your 70s and 80s, you sleep less, but it’s not as correlated with health problems or impairment,” says Grandner. “Older people are more resilient and satisfied with the amount of sleep they get, even if it’s less than when they were younger.”

The perception of insomnia

“Before filming, I felt like everything I read online about sleep was aimed at solving the problem. Articles like “Five tips for better sleep” or “Why screens at night interfere with sleep ‘” says Mills. “It felt like there was an easy fix and if you’re having trouble sleeping, it’s your fault. ”

Grandner adds, “When a person sleeps well, they are perceived as relaxed and together. Conversely, a person who has trouble sleeping is considered “on edge”.

One of the stories in the film focuses on Big Steve. He is shown wandering the streets late at night, desperately trying to tire himself out so he can fall asleep. “We wanted to illustrate the loneliness and isolation that comes with insomnia,” says Mills.

Another story depicted in the film is Lois’ struggle. She approaches her bed at night in slow motion with disturbing music.

“Lois knows that falling asleep will be a battle, that she will have a hard time, and we wanted to show the audience the anxiety that comes with it every night,” says Mills.

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Treat chronic insomnia

Grandner points out that there is a big difference in dealing with occasional sleep issues versus chronic insomnia.

“If you Google ‘insomnia,’ you’ll get a lot of advice on sleep hygiene,” he says. “Yes, it helps to go to bed at the same time every night, keep the room dark, and limit screen time before bed. But it’s like brushing and flossing. This is essential, it helps keep your teeth healthy, but these habits will not solve the problem of crooked teeth. It requires something more like braces. The same goes for chronic insomnia: it requires more treatment than just better sleep hygiene.

If a person has chronic insomnia, they should make an appointment with their doctor. They can perform tests and suggest a treatment plan.

Grandner says: “People may think, ‘Nobody sleeps well at my age’ or ‘I just have to suffer’ or ‘Prescription sleeping pills are the only option’, but that’s not true. There are treatments available such as CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) that are effective in treating insomnia.

Although tempting, avoid self-medication for insomnia. Grandner says, “Alcohol, the most commonly used sleep aid, will make you fall asleep but wake you up as it passes through your system. Other options like CBD, THC, and over-the-counter sleeping pills aren’t ideal for chronic insomnia either.

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Our relationship to sleep

Throughout the film, Mills talks about our “relationship with sleep”.

“Just as people have relationships with each other, everyone has their own relationship with sleep. Like any relationship, it evolves and changes with time and circumstances. Relationships by nature are not stagnant,” she says. Mills hope the film sheds some light on this silent epidemic and lets people know that they are not alone. They did nothing wrong, and it is not their fault.

“Viewing sleep as a relationship empowers people. You don’t have to call yourself a ‘poor sleeper’ and think there’s no hope,” she says. “In the same way that people can improve their relationship with their spouse, they can improve their relationship with sleep.”

Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenthood to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son. Learn more about his work at randimazzella.com.

This article is reproduced with permission from NextAvenue.org© 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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