Is It a Few Bad Nights or Insomnia?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on November 05, 2022
3 min read

Is it hard for you to fall asleep or stay asleep at night? Maybe thoughts of work, family, or finances keep you up when you should be catching ZZZs. Or a physical problem, like an illness or medication, could be the reason.

If you struggle to get enough sleep, you aren’t alone. Studies show nearly 30% of adults in the United States have some form of insomnia.

But how do you know if your sleep issues are a short-term concern or a persistent problem?

Chronic insomnia means you have symptoms at least three times a week for at least 3 months. This type of disorder is a constant difficulty that disrupts your daily life.

You might have insomnia if you:

  • Can’t fall asleep
  • Wake up frequently in the middle of the night
  • Can’t go back to sleep
  • Notice daytime fatigue, mood changes, or problems with concentration and memory

If your sleep issues last less than 3 months, you may have short-term insomnia.

For many people with short-term sleep disorders, symptoms gradually get better.

Sometimes, these temporary episodes are due to stressful life events, such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, or job loss. An illness or change in routine are other possible causes. Symptoms will usually improve once the issue resolves, but short-term insomnia can occasionally develop into a more lasting condition. 

Both adults and children can have short-term and chronic insomnia. The conditions are more common in women than in men.  

A number of sleep disorders can lead to insomnia. Some common ones are:

  • Sleep apnea: Heavy snoring interrupts normal breathing during sleep.
  • Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS): Your legs feel uncomfortable and you have an urge to move them as you fall asleep.
  • REM Sleep Behavior Disorder: You act out dreams in your sleep with talking, walking, or swinging arms.
  • Narcolepsy: You feel extremely sleepy during the day and may fall asleep suddenly. 

Other common causes of sleep troubles include:

  • Stress: Traumatic or stressful events can keep your brain active at night and make it difficult to fall asleep.
  • A change in schedule: Your symptoms might be worse when you travel or change your normal sleep routine.  
  • Medications: Certain medicines, like antidepressants and blood pressure drugs, may disrupt sleep.
  • Mental health disorders: People with anxiety or depression are more likely to suffer insomnia.
  • Other health conditions: Many other medical conditions are linked to insomnia, including diabetes, cancer, asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), overactive thyroid, Alzheimer’s disease, and more.  
  • Alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine: These substances could be to blame for a bad night’s sleep.
  • Nighttime snacking: If you eat a heavy meal right before bed, you may have trouble falling asleep.
  • Bad sleep habits: Use of computers, smartphones, or other devices before bed may disrupt your sleep cycle. Also, a poor nighttime schedule or an unpleasant sleep environment could lead to sleep difficulties.

You might want to see your doctor if you’ve had insomnia for at least 3 months or if your symptoms interfere with your daily activities.

Your doctor might suggest that you keep a sleep diary to record your habits. Typically, this log includes information like when you go to sleep, how long you’re awake at night, and when you wake up.

You may be referred to a board-certified sleep doctor for additional testing.

Often, short-term insomnia is a temporary condition that will go away on its own. But it can affect how you function day to day. Try to follow good sleep habits, such as a consistent bedtime schedule and limited naps. Contact your doctor if your symptoms are severe or don’t go away in 3 months.

On the other hand, chronic insomnia lasts for months at a time. You should see a sleep expert to help you come up with a treatment approach. There are many therapies available to help you get a restful night’s sleep.