Insomnia Explained: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment

Insomnia

Insomnia, also known as Insomnia Disorder, is a sleep disorder that causes the affected person to have problems with quantity or quality of sleep. People with insomnia might take hours to fall asleep, leaving them with only a few hours of sleep every night followed by daytime drowsiness and low energy. Severe cases of insomnia can cause the affected person to be unable to sleep at all throughout the night, leading to an ongoing cycle of sleeping during the day or taking naps, both of which further exacerbate nighttime insomnia. Poor sleep quality is characterized by being able to fall asleep, but then waking up often at night. The inability to adequately progress through all sleep stages is another cause of poor sleep quality. Insomnia, in its many forms, is a rather common condition that most people will struggle with at some point in their lives. It can be chronic or can occur for a brief period of time.

Although insomnia is considered a mental health disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5th edition (DSM 5), it is oftentimes also a symptom of another bigger problem or issue occurring in the affected persons life. The causes of insomnia, however, are so diverse that many affected people become frustrated with the treatment process, as pinpointing the exact cause can be challenging. Identifying the underlying cause and treating this primary concern can help people struggling with insomnia to not only restore their regular sleep patterns, but also achieve better quality sleep than ever before.

Causes of Insomnia

A major contributor to insomnia is stress. Stress is, of course, the culprit of many physical and emotional problems and insomnia is no exception. Stress can impact your ability to fall and/or stay asleep usually because events, problems, and worries you carry throughout the day will inevitably follow you home and into bed at night. In some cases, stressors are something you might avoid or push to the back of your mind all day as you try to work, go to school, take care of family, and carry on your every day tasks. You need a clear mind to accomplish what you need to do throughout the day, but when nighttime comes and you lie in bed, you finally get a mental and physical break. This is often when worrying is at its peak since you don’t have anything else to distract you as you lay in silence and are alone with your own thoughts.

Just as stress can contribute to chronic or short-term insomnia, so can other emotional concerns, such as depression and/or anxiety. In fact, a symptom of Major Depressive Disorder is sleep disturbance where people can either sleep too much or not get enough sleep. People with anxiety disorders can also struggle with insomnia, as worries, fears, and/or panic can prevent falling and/or staying asleep.

There are various physical health problems that can cause insomnia. In these cases, insomnia definitely acts as a symptom, as it is a result of an illness or disease. In addition, medications that you may take to treat physical/medical problems (and mental health problems, too) can cause side effects, one of which is insomnia.                                                

Another cause of insomnia that is both physical health-related and associated with lifestyle/environmental factors is your diet and exercise habits. What you eat (or don’t eat) can significantly impact your overall health. You can even feel the effects of your diet after eating unhealthy, processed foods for just a few days! It doesn’t take months or years. Insomnia is a potential consequence especially if you are eating heavy meals before bedtime and/or consuming high sugar or high carbohydrate (which turns into sugar) foods throughout your day. Caffeine is, of course, a significant cause of insomnia, even caffeine you consume several hours before bed.

Consequences 

The extent of consequences of insomnia often depend on whether your sleep difficulties are short term or chronic. Short-term insomnia, lasting approximately a few weeks due to a significant life event or stressor, might affect your day-to-day functioning, but will likely not create any lasting adverse effects if the stressor is managed or resolved.

Chronic insomnia, occurring longer than one month, can start to negatively impact your physical and emotional health. Not getting enough sleep or getting poor quality sleep can cause you to get sick more often (e.g., colds, flus), as sleep is essential for immune system functioning. If you’re immune system is not in good shape, you are at greater risk for other more serious illnesses.

As far as your emotional health, sleep disturbance on its own can instigate the onset of depression, anxiety, and in severe cases, even psychosis. Sleep is so essential to our health that even the personality of a person with chronic sleep deprivation can change dramatically. People can become irritable, angry, or even aggressive in some cases.

Treatment

The types of treatments available for insomnia are as varied as the causes of the disorder. Interventions from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness have been used for the treatment of insomnia. Stress management and learning coping skills to manage life stressors is also critical since both short-term and chronic insomnia can be significantly fueled by stressful life events, such as a busy work schedule, burnout, and lack of self-care, among many other circumstances. People who are over stressed will often think about their issues at night while lying in bed when they should be winding down and relaxing so that they can achieve falling sleep.

An important part of treatment for insomnia is ensuring that the affected person is practicing proper sleep hygiene. Most of the sleep hygiene steps may seem like rather obvious practices, but it is common for many people with insomnia to skip these critical activities. For example, sleep hygiene involves going to bed and waking up most days of the week (i.e., 5-6 days) at about the same time. In addition, sleeping in a cool and dark room and not eating or drinking anything before bedtime is important. Sleeping with pets or children is also often discouraged if you are trying to address insomnia.

Author
Dr. Michael Messina

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