What to Do About Insomnia

Can't Sleep? Insomnia Types, Causes, and Treatments

From the WebMD Archives

Just can't get to sleep? Can't stay asleep? Waking up too early? Not feeling refreshed and restored in the morning? Not functioning well during the day? You may have insomnia.

Up to about one-third of the population have symptoms of insomnia. Those with insomnia typically experience:

  • Sleepiness
  • Fatigue
  • Poor concentration
  • Decreased alertness and performance
  • Muscle aches
  • Depression during the day and night
  • An over-emotional state (tense, worried, irritable, and depressed)

While it may be very difficult to get to sleep at bedtime, you find yourself "out like a light" in front of the TV, at a movie, reading, or even driving. And anticipating getting a poor night's sleep as well as developing rituals and behaviors you think will help your sleep (going to bed earlier) may actually have the opposite effect -- and make the problem worse. Such is the plight, misery, and danger of insomnia.

Many of us experience temporary insomnia from a few days to a few weeks. This kind of insomnia usually results from normal events in our lives such as:

  • A stressful event
  • Emotional stress
  • Illness
  • Temporary pain
  • Disturbances in sleep hygiene (environmental factors under your control that may contribute to disturbed sleep and insomnia)
  • Disruptions to circadian rhythm (the 24-hour rhythmic regulation of our body processes)

When stressful situations resolve, when you recover from illness, when the pain goes away, when sleep hygiene improves -- then sleep usually improves.

Circadian rhythm disruptions like shift work and jet lag may contribute to insomnia because the times you fall asleep and wake up are temporarily shifted. Proper sleep hygiene, particularly the amount of and timing of light, can help re-set your circadian rhythm and improve the symptoms of insomnia from these causes.

Medical Causes

Insomnia also may result from a variety of medical conditions, pain, and even the treatments for these disorders. And poor sleep hygiene can make these medical conditions worse.

Depressive illnesses are almost always associated with sleep disturbances. Those suffering from anxiety may be unable to sleep due to intrusive thoughts, an inability to relax, obsessive worrying, and an "overactive" mind. Bipolar, panic, and psychiatric disorders are each associated with sleep disturbances as well.