People with insomnia have trouble falling or staying asleep. Insomnia can cause difficulty with everyday activities. It can create problems with concentration and can lead to serious health issues later on. Understanding what can cause insomnia and how it’s treated by a trained mental health clinician can be an important step in getting help for a wide range of sleep issues.
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a sleep disorder that makes it difficult to get to sleep, stay asleep, or get back to sleep. People suffering from insomnia might wake up in the middle of the night or early morning and be unable to fall back asleep (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Insomnia can be idiopathic, meaning it doesn’t have a clear physical or psychological cause. Or, it can be caused by a medical or psychiatric issue. For example, anxiety or chronic back pain may keep someone awake at night.
Insomnia can be acute or chronic (Vargas et al., 2020). Acute insomnia is shorter-term and often caused by external factors, such as life stress. Chronic insomnia is long-term and can be caused or worsened by factors such as anxiety, depression, or chronic pain.
Signs and symptoms of Insomnia
Everyone experiences insomnia differently, but symptoms can include:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty getting back to sleep
- Waking up frequently during the night
- Feeling tired and exhausted during the day
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing on tasks
- Irritability and mood swings
- Trouble remembering things
- Increased anxiety or stress levels
- Changes in appetite
- Headaches and muscle pain
How can insomnia impact your life?
Beyond feeling irritable and being unable to focus, insomnia can have other long-term effects (Colten et al., 2006). These can include:
- Chronic health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes
- Weakened immune system
- Weight gain
- Memory problems
Short-term impacts of sleep deprivation can include:
- Reduced cognitive function or ability to think clearly
- Reduced ability to focus and pay attention
- Reduced creativity
- Impaired judgment
- Reduced productivity
What causes insomnia?
While the causes of insomnia are not always clear, situational factors like stress, anxiety, or grief can be contributing factors. Noise pollution, uncomfortable temperatures, or too much caffeine can create a poor sleep environment that worsen symptoms. Insomnia can also be brought on by medical issues, such as chronic pain, sleep apnea, or certain medications.
Who is more likely to get insomnia?
Some groups of people are more at-risk for insomnia than others. For example, women are more likely to experience insomnia than men, while older adults are also at a higher risk (Bhaskar et al., 2016).
Insomnia treatment and prevention
Because insomnia can have many different causes, there are many treatment options. These can include working with a physician or sleep specialist. Some people may need to make changes to their sleeping habits, while others might benefit from medication.
A therapist can help address any underlying mental health issues that may be causing sleep problems, such as anxiety, depression, or stress. By helping to develop better sleep habits, a therapist can help you improve sleep quality and duration.
Improving sleep habits
Sometimes, having a routine and creating better sleep habits (also known as sleep hygiene) can help alleviate insomnia. Actions to improve sleep habits can include:
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed
- Establish a regular sleep schedule
- Avoid vigorous exercise late at night
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine
- Make sure the bedroom is dark and quiet
- Limit screen time before bed
- Keep a sleep diary to track patterns and progress
Practicing better sleep habits, along with seeing a physician or therapist, can help improve sleep quality and duration.
Therapy for insomnia
Therapy can identify the underlying causes of insomnia and help alleviate symptoms. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to teach patients how to cope with negative thoughts that prevent them from sleeping.
By addressing mental and physical health issues and building good habits, clinicians can help patients improve sleep quality and duration and finally get some rest.
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- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
- Bhaskar, A., Hemavathy, D., & Prasad, S. (2016). Prevalence of chronic insomnia in adult patients and its correlation with medical comorbidities. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary care, 5(4): 780–784.
- Colten, H. R., & Altevogt, B. M. (Eds.). (2006). Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders. In Sleep disorders and sleep deprivation: An unmet public health problem (pp. 55–135). essay, Institute of Medicine.
- Vargas, I., Nguyen, A. M., Muench, A., Bastien, C. H., Ellis, J. G., & Perlis, M. L. (2020). Acute and chronic insomnia: What has time and/or hyperarousal got to do with it? Brain Sciences, 10(2), 71. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci10020071