Kris Herndon had her first bout of insomnia in college. She was sharing a dorm room with two other students at Emory University in Atlanta, drinking a lot of coffee to stay awake to study, and often falling asleep with her books open and the lights on.

Her roommates came and went at all hours. The dorm was never fully quiet or dark. She'd crash for an hour or so at a time, but spend most of the night wide awake. At one point, she went almost a week with no sleep.

“When you’re on your own for the first time, you think, ‘I can do whatever I want. I can stay up all night,’” she recalls. “I was new to living on campus and I had a hard time adjusting to sleeping in the dorm and (the sleepless nights) really got out of hand.”

To get through classes and homework, Herndon ordered supersized coffees from the dining hall and refilled her cup all day. All that caffeine only made things worse.

“By the end of the day, I was so wired on caffeine that I was unable to sleep,” she says. “It was a vicious cycle.”

It didn’t take long for the lack of sleep to take its toll. Herndon started hallucinating, seeing flashing lights that weren't there. She says the hallucinations "freaked me out," and were a sign she needed help to get back to sleep.

With little knowledge about insomnia or the importance of good sleep habits, Herndon worried something was very wrong. “I felt like, ‘Why is this happening?’” she says. “I worried that something might be really wrong with me." 

That anxiety only made her sleep troubles worse.

Understanding Insomnia

Herndon responded to an ad posted on campus about sleep studies and agreed to sleep in a lab where her sleep patterns were monitored. That's when she was diagnosed with insomnia.

Up to 70 million Americans have sleep disorders. Insomnia is the most common. Long-lasting, or chronic, insomnia affects 10% of adults. An additional 30% report bouts of sleeplessness at some time during their lives.

Chronic insomnia is defined as trouble falling asleep or staying asleep on three or more nights a week for more than 3 months. It's linked to a host of health issues, from anxiety and depression to asthma and high blood pressure.

For Herndon, her diagnosis offered a sense of relief. “It was comforting to hear this is all normal,” she says.

Getting Back to Sleep

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is considered the first-line treatment for chronic insomnia. It helps you identify thoughts and behaviors that interfere with sleep, and replace them with those that make it easier to drift into a restful slumber. The goal is to address the causes of your insomnia, not just relieve symptoms temporarily.

As part of CBT-I, you may learn de-stressing techniques like meditation or progressive muscle relaxation. You might practice sleep restriction, in which you limit the time you spend in bed. This leads to physical fatigue, which makes it easier to get to sleep. CBT-I also educates you about healthy sleep habits, called sleep hygiene.

As part of the college sleep study, Herndon learned about habits that could help her get back to sleep. She was surprised to find out the ways that late nights, erratic sleep schedules, a noisy environment, and caffeine might contribute to her sleeplessness.

The sleep researchers suggested science-backed behavior changes to help reset her sleep/wake cycle, like:

  • Establish a sleep schedule
  • Cut back on caffeine and alcohol
  • Steer clear of screens in the hour before bed
  • Sleep in a cool, dark room

Herndon began making these changes right away. She even got her roommates on board. “The effect was pretty immediate,” she says.

Three decades after her insomnia diagnosis, Herndon, now 50, still uses the CBT-I-based techniques the researchers taught her in college. She goes to bed and wakes up at the same time each day, powers down electronics at 8 p.m., sleeps with a white-noise machine on to drown out any sounds, gets regular exercise, and spends time outdoors.

She still struggles with insomnia on occasion, especially in the midst of perimenopause, a time when up to 42% of women have trouble sleeping. As soon as she has a single sleepless night, Herndon knows it’s time for a reset.

“Some of this stuff takes a little discipline to do, but it’s so worth it,” she says. It’s less stressful knowing I have this whole list of things I can attack it with.”

Herndon admits that she sometimes breaks the rules, indulging in a glass of wine at dinner or meeting friends for an afternoon coffee. But having a set of strategies she knows will help her sleep through the night helps her feel less anxious about living with insomnia.

“Once I had these steps that I knew were going to help, I felt more in control,” she says. “Now I know I can get a good night’s sleep as soon as I’m back in my routine.”

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