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Overcoming Insomnia

Everyone has trouble falling asleep from time to time; indeed, evidence suggests that 100 percent of adults experience periods of sleeplessness over the course of their lifetime. But a significant number of people struggle with insomnia, a common sleep disorder that can have severe deleterious effects on sufferers’ mental and physical well-being. Individuals with insomnia regularly struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, or return to sleep upon waking prematurely. This can, in turn, trigger irritability, reduced cognitive abilities, anxiety, depression, and numerous physical health problems if left untreated.

On the bright side, many cases of insomnia, regardless of severity, respond well to treatment. Self-help strategies, like improving sleep hygiene or implementing at-home behavioral techniques, can help in most mild to moderate cases. For more severe or persistent cases, a specific kind of CBT aimed at treating insomnia has a strong success rate; medications are also available in certain cases. Though many people with insomnia suffer in silence, they may rest easier knowing that the disorder is common, easily diagnosable, and highly treatable.

Understanding Insomnia

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There is no exact amount of sleep loss that defines insomnia, as everyone varies in the amount of sleep they need, their preferred sleep schedule, and how rested they feel after a typical night of good sleep. One core feature of insomnia, then, is that the sleep patterns associated with it differ enough from the individual’s ideal night of sleep that it causes them significant distress and negatively impacts their well-being.

Insomnia can occur at any age; it is even possible (albeit rare) for infants to have insomnia. Recurrent insomnia typically first onsets in adolescence or young adulthood, though it may begin later in life. Teens and young adults with insomnia tend to report greater difficulty falling asleep; older adults tend to struggle primarily with staying asleep. Either form of insomnia can cause sleep loss and psychological distress.

What are the symptoms of insomnia?

Symptoms of insomnia include difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and/or an inability to fall back asleep after waking up too early in the morning. Since many people experience these symptoms at least occasionally, in order to qualify for a diagnosis of persistent or chronic insomnia, they must persist for a period of 3 months and occur at least 3 times a week. (For more on the symptoms of insomnia, see our Diagnosis Dictionary.)

What are the long-term effects of insomnia?

Persistent insomnia that goes untreated typically leads to sleep deprivation; chronic sleep loss, in turn, can come with serious ill effects, including an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and many kinds of cancer; weight gain; accelerated skin aging and decreased bone density; reduced cognitive capacity; and more. Insomnia also comes with other dangers, like an increased risk of accidental injury or death. Thus, it’s imperative that anyone struggling with chronic insomnia take steps to address it as soon as possible. 

Common Triggers Shutterstock

Though it’s not always known exactly what is causing someone’s insomnia, there are many potential culprits that should be explored. Many cases of acute insomnia are triggered by co-occurring life events that may be causing stress, excitement, or otherwise making sleep challenging; there may also be physical causes, such as a new medication or a painful injury. Long-term cases of insomnia may be related to a co-occurring mental health disorder, a disturbance in the sleep-wake cycle, or a chronic medical condition that interferes with sleep. Identifying the specific cause of insomnia is often useful for managing and treating the disorder.

What are the most common reasons for insomnia?

Insomnia can be caused by many factors. These include anxiety, stress, jet lag, grief, medication side effects, depression, chronic pain, alcohol consumption, caffeine use, and more. (For more on the causes of insomnia, see our Diagnosis Dictionary.

Can menopause cause insomnia?

Yes, menopause is a known trigger for sleep problems in general; insomnia itself tends to increase significantly during perimenopause and may continue post-menopause. According to the CDC, almost one-quarter of perimenopausal women report frequent trouble falling asleep, while more than 30 percent struggle to stay asleep most nights. After menopause is complete, more than 25 percent of women report continuing trouble falling asleep; more than half report frequently waking up tired.

Managing and Treating Insomnia

Insomnia is a frustrating disorder to live with, and the emotional distress it causes tends to worsen over time. Many people, especially those whose insomnia comes and goes, don’t seek formal treatment for it. But chronic insomnia isn’t something that must be tolerated or endured. There are several empirically-supported treatment options for insomnia—including some that can be completed over a short period of time. The front-line treatment for insomnia, CBT-I, has proven to be highly effective in many cases and typically only requires a few months of committment. Self-help strategies, though they require dedication and effort to maintain, can also produce significant results for many sufferers—and may even improve other aspects of physical and mental health along the way.

How do you treat chronic insomnia?

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I, as the first-line treatment for chronic insomnia. CBT-I aims to change the behaviors and negative thought patterns that contribute to persistent sleeplessness. Other treatments include medications—though most should be used only over the short term—melatonin supplements, or light therapy. (For more on treating insomnia, see our Diagnosis Dictionary.)

When should I see a sleep specialist to treat my insomnia?

If one is experiencing poor sleep, dedicating at least two weeks to improving their sleep hygiene may solve the problem. If not, and if one continues to experience steady sleep disruption or insomnia, it may be time to consult a doctor, who may be able to provide a referral to an expert in sleep medicine.

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