Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep. Insomnia can be either acute or chronic. Acute Insomnia is characterized by rapid onset and is temporary. Acute insomnia can last for days or weeks and is usually brought on by situations such as stress at work or a traumatic life event. 

Causes of acute insomnia are as follows:

  • Life changes such as work pressure, job change, loss, or separation
  • Long travel or jet lag
  • Changes in work hours
  • Excessive or unpleasant noise

  • Room temperature being too hot or too cold
  • Stressful events such as impending news, exam prep, fire, or robbery
  • New medical or surgical illness or hospitalization
  • Withdrawal from drug, alcohol, sedative, or stimulant medications
  • Wrong mattress or pillow

Unlike acute insomnia, chronic insomnia is ongoing. Chronic Insomnia is the inability to get proper sleep for longer than four weeks. Causes of chronic insomnia are usually related to some medical condition or unresolved acute insomnia.

  • Anxiety disorders such as panic disorder or other such conditions
  • Depression
  • Constant mental, situational or emotional stress
  • Schizophrenia or bipolar disorder
  • Chronic pain
  • Drug abuse or other addictive behaviors
  • Death of a loved one or spouse

Women are more likely than men to experience episodes of insomnia due to hormonal shifts as menopause greatly increases the likelihood of insomnia due to night sweats and hot flashes, which often disturb sleep. If you are over 60, you are at greater risk for insomnia due to changes in sleep patterns and stressful life events often contribute to chronic insomnia.

Symptoms of insomnia

The obvious symptom of insomnia is the inability to fall asleep at night or stay asleep; however, many other symptoms are associated with insomnia and lack of sleep such as:

  • Difficulty with memory
  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Irritability and impaired social interaction
  • Motor vehicle accidents due to fatigue when driving
  • Poor concentration and focus
  • Un-refreshing sleep or waking tired and inattentive

Treating Insomnia

If suffering from acute insomnia, it is likely you will be able to self-diagnose and simple lifestyle changes may greatly improve symptoms.  Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, may require more significant treatment including medication and specific changes in sleep conditions. Your physician or sleep specialist can determine the appropriate medication for chronic insomnia, in addition to, an appropriate treatment regimen that may include psychological therapy.  Recent research has shown that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia is more effective at treating insomnia long term than medications. 

In general, developing good sleep habits can help to control insomnia in most cases including:

  • Avoid substances that make the condition worse - Avoid substances such as caffeine, tobacco, alcohol and other stimulants.  Certain over-the-counter medications can cause insomnia as well.

  • Create a soothing bedtime routine - Create bedtime habits that will make it easier to wind down, relax and fall asleep.

  • Do not exercise before bedtime - Do not exercise at least four hours before bedtime. The increase in core body temperature from your workout can cause you to stay awake.

  • Follow a regular bedtime schedule - Consistency is key! Make sure you fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day. This will ensure your internal clock stays regular.

  • Avoid naps -  Even if you did not sleep well the night before, avoid naps. Taking naps during the day may make it more difficult for you to fall asleep at nap. If a nap is absolutely necessary, limit it to 30 minutes before 3 p.m.

  • Limit artificial light 30 minutes to one hour before bedtime - This will boost melatonin production. Use low-wattage bulbs, cover all windows and electric displays in your bedroom and do not look at a computer screen at least one hour before bed.  The use of “low-blue” lights for nightlights has been show to be effective in allowing melatonin production while having light in the bedroom.

In more severe cases of chronic insomnia, a sleep study or psychological test may need to be performed. Dependent on your doctor’s discretion, he or she may suggest medications to help reduce insomnia symptoms.

If you need more information about insomnia, submit your question to the sleep experts at STLI.