Table of Contents
Insomnia: What It Is, Symptoms, and Potential Treatment Options


The Basics of Insomnia

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder experienced by adults. It causes someone to experience trouble getting enough sleep at night, although the manner in which the disorder presents can be different for each person. You might struggle to fall asleep, even if you’re tired, or wake up constantly throughout the night. You may experience both of these issues or experience poor quality of sleep that doesn’t cycle appropriately through the phases of sleep. Ultimately, the end result is that you don’t get enough rest, and that can impact your day-to-day functioning as well as your long-term health.

Two overall categories of insomnia exist.

  • Acute insomnia is short term and usually relates to situational issues that might cause sleep problems for a few days or weeks.
  • Chronic insomnia is long term, causing sleep issues for months at a time or even longer.

What Causes Insomnia?

Insomnia can be primary (the main problem) or secondary (caused by another issue). In most cases, acute insomnia is secondary; it’s caused primarily by situational issues such as stress related to work, family life, or some change in lifestyle. Major losses (such as the death of a loved one) and major wins (such as a promotion at work or an upcoming vacation) can cause acute insomnia.

Chronic insomnia can be secondary or primary. Chronic insomnia that’s secondary can be caused by a variety of factors, such as:

  • Existing medical conditions, including neurological disorders
  • Another sleep disorder
  • Mental health or substance abuse disorders
  • Menopause
  • Diets that include large amounts of stimulants like caffeine and sugar
  • Lack of exercise or healthy activity levels

Primary insomnia occurs when no other medical condition or lifestyle factor is contributing to poor sleep, but the insomnia persists for a month or more. The causes of primary insomnia aren’t well understood. Sometimes the condition may begin as acute insomnia caused by a change in lifestyle or stress, but even after those issues are resolved, the insomnia persists. Other factors, such as your age, could increase your risk for chronic insomnia.

Insomnia by the Numbers gathers sleep statistics from a wide variety of sources, including the National Sleep Foundation and Mayo Clinic. It notes that a Gallup poll determined that around 40% of Americans get less than the 7 hours of recommended sleep a night. Insomnia is the most recognized reason for sleep struggle, with 10 to 15% of the adult population experiencing this disorder at least once. Other common sleep disorders include hypersomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and delayed sleep-wake phase disorder.

Insomnia seems to be more prevalent in some demographics than others. Women are twice as likely to suffer from this sleep disorder than men are, for example. And CDC and census data from 2010 indicate that people in Kentucky, Alabama, and Georgia experience insomnia at greater rates than those in other states. Overall, CDC statistics indicate sleep deprivation is a more common problem for people in states east of the Mississippi River (or in the EST time zone).

Signs and Symptoms of Insomnia

The National Sleep Foundation notes that insomnia symptoms include difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or going back to sleep if you wake up during the night. Other symptoms include:

  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Waking up after a night of sleep without feeling rested
  • Waking up too early
  • Problems concentrating or focusing on tasks during the day
  • Irritability or moodiness, especially when it’s tied to fatigue
  • Forgetting things
  • Worrying about your sleep or the fact that you can’t seem to get enough rest

Because insomnia creates a situation where you repeatedly attend to your day in a state of fatigue or exhaustion, it can also lead to increased errors and accidents. If you’re making simple and odd errors at work or with regular daily tasks, for example, it might be a sign that you’re not getting enough sleep.

Treatment for Insomnia

While most people do struggle with sleep from time to time for various reasons, insomnia that makes it difficult for you to function during daily life can be serious. It diminishes your quality of life and can even lead to more serious issues such as car accidents. Plus, long-term sleep deprivation is linked to numerous health issues. If you’re struggling with sleep to the point that it’s impacting your life, it may be a good idea to talk to a doctor to find out about treatment options.

Some treatment options for insomnia include:

  • Lifestyle changes, such as reducing caffeine or alcohol intake, getting more exercise, or working to reduce stressors that may be impacting your sleep. Providers may offer information about developing better sleeping habits to help you get a good night’s rest. Common options include reducing naps during the day, developing a bedtime routine to wind down before sleeping, cutting screen time before bed, and not eating large meals within the few hours before bedtime.
  • Treating the underlying issue. In cases where insomnia is actually a symptom of another medical or mental health issue, identifying that cause and treating it may cause insomnia to clear up.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, which is talk therapy that can help you identify stressors and develop healthy coping mechanisms to deal with them. CBT can help you talk through anxieties and negative thought processes that might be impacting your sleep, and it introduces education and skills for better mental wellness. Individuals who are experiencing insomnia due to situational life factors may find therapy helpful in resolving the root cause of their sleep issues.
  • Medications. While medications such as Lunesta and Restoril can help you feel sleepy or fall asleep despite issues with insomnia, Consumer Reports notes that many experts advise caution when opting for these treatments. Medications can be very effective in helping with some sleep issues, but there are side effects and risks to consider, so make sure you talk to your doctor about all your options so you can make an educated choice before choosing a treatment.

How to Get Help & Additional Resources

Disclaimer: This guide is for informational purposes only and not meant to be used to diagnose or treat a medical or mental health disorder. If you are struggling with sleep or concerned that you might be suffering from insomnia, talk to a medical professional about your symptoms and what treatments might be right for you.