Waking up feeling anxious or frightened, with his bed damp from sweat, was a regular occurrence for former Army Corporal Ian Young from Co Durham.
For more than four years, broken and limited sleep became his ‘norm’. He carried out his job in IT by surviving on adrenaline and the occasional lunchtime nap in his car. The strain became so great that he contemplated suicide.
“I would wake in a state of panic with no idea why and with my mind going at 100mph, giving me no chance of getting back to sleep,” recalls the 44-year-old.
“During the day, I would feel like death with a hangover. Obviously, my mental health was suffering but, after a while, I forgot what it was like to have a full night’s sleep and thought that how I felt was normal!”
He is not alone. A survey from Help for Heroes revealed that 41% of ex-servicemen and women in the UK have issues sleeping, (compared to 27% of the general public, according to a study from the Sleep Council) and a quarter get fewer than five hours’ sleep on an average night - much less than the widely-recommended eight hours.
At first, Ian had no idea what was causing his disturbed nights. Later, therapy sessions linked them to the psychological impact of an incident he had witnessed while serving in Northern Ireland 20 years earlier with the Royal Regt of Fusiliers which he joined straight from school.
But in 2014, he was diagnosed with PTSD, extreme anxiety and depression for which he received help from PTSD Resolution – a charity that offers counselling to UK armed forces' veterans, reservists and families to relieve mental health problems resulting from military service.
It helped hugely with Ian’s trauma-related problems but it was when he volunteered to take part, through Help for Heroes, in a pilot project on Planned Dream Intervention (PDI), that he finally began to experience undisturbed sleep.
He attended a short course held at Help for Heroes Recovery Centre, Phoenix House in Catterick Garrison, and conducted by psychological trauma therapist, Justin Havens, as part of the PhD he was undertaking at the Veterans and Families Institute of the Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford.
The concept of PDI is that dream content may be influenced by conscious thoughts and imagery which can then be used to permanently end a nightmare. Of the 24 ex-service personnel who took part in the initial study, 75% of them reported improved sleep – and Ian was one of them.
Two days after completing the course, he had his first nightmare but, using the techniques he had learned – of envisaging himself in a place where he felt safe or happy - he managed to go back to sleep. And he hasn’t looked back.
“I was gob-smacked!” said Ian. “I love long-distance running and, that summer, had been training along a beach in Northumberland. My partner Juliet had been behind me and took a photo of me – blue sky, sunshine, sand and the castle – and it’s that scene that I visualised. Before I knew it, I was back to sleep and the next time I awoke, it was morning. I couldn’t believe it!”
Eighteen months on, the father of three boys is still using that technique and his sleep has never been better.
“I nearly took my own life but now I know I made the right decision to carry on. I feel like I have a constant spring in my step and just bounce out of the door every morning.
“I know there are guys and girls out there whose lives are similarly affected, as mine was, by lack of sleep. I hope they can take some inspiration from my story and reach out for help.”