Hands down one of the most prevalent sleep disorders, insomnia affects roughly 30% of adults, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. From time to time, most of us have experienced the feeling of lying awake and feeling tired, but being unable to go to sleep. But if you experience this problem regularly and are feeling the effects of sleep deprivation, it could be insomnia.
What is insomnia?
Simply put, insomnia is a condition in which you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. It can be chronic, recurring regularly during the week and lasting for many months, or acute, meaning it comes and goes and does not persist for more than a few weeks. And since most healthy adults require at least 7 hours of sleep each night, frequent insomnia can lead to:
- Daytime fatigue or drowsiness
- Difficulty concentrating or working
- Higher tendency for accidents or mistakes
- Depression, anxiety, or irritability
- Accompanying health problems, like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure
What are the causes of insomnia?
There are two different types of insomnia, each classified by what causes them.
- Secondary insomnia is insomnia as a symptom of a medical condition, mental illness, or substance use. Generally, it can be resolved by treating the primary cause.
- Primary insomnia is sleeplessness that isn’t derived from another health condition or mental disorder. Sometimes the cause is unknown, but often it’s a result of stress or poor sleep hygiene. We’ll discuss some techniques to resolve primary insomnia later in this article.
According to the Sleep Foundation, the most common causes of insomnia include:
- Stress. When a person experiences stressful life events or undergoes trauma, their body may react both physically and mentally, becoming hyperaroused and unable to sleep.
- An irregular sleep schedule. Often when a person doesn’t keep consistent sleeping hours, their circadian rhythm will be disrupted. This means the body doesn’t properly interpret when to sleep and when to wake, which leads to insomnia.
- Lifestyle habits. Doing certain activities, like using electronics, napping, or eating a heavy meal, closer to bedtime can make it more difficult to fall asleep at night. Excessive caffeine or alcohol use can also contribute to insomnia.
- Mental health conditions. Secondary insomnia is commonly a symptom of depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.
- Illness or pain. Any condition that causes pain can be a trigger for insomnia (and pain is often exacerbated by an uncomfortable mattress). Additionally, any illness that affects the nervous or respiratory system can make it harder to sleep.
- Certain medications. Insomnia is a potential side-effect of many different medications. Additionally, certain medicines can cause drowsiness during the day which can throw off a person’s regular sleep schedule.
- Neurological disorders. Diseases and disorders ranging from dementia to ADHD may cause nighttime confusion, hyperarousal, or an irregular circadian rhythm that can lead to insomnia.
- Other sleep disorders. Insomnia can also come as a symptom of other sleep disorders. Sleep apnea, one of the most common sleep conditions, is often accompanied by insomnia.
- Certain age ranges. Teens and elderly people (those over 60) tend to experience insomnia more than other age groups. People over 60 tend to experience more of the chronic conditions mentioned above, and are therefore at a higher risk for secondary insomnia. Teenagers, on the other hand, will experience biological changes that may affect their circadian rhythms and regular sleep hours.
- Pregnancy. Another cause for secondary insomnia, pregnancy can cause sleep disruptions due to hormonal shifts and the pressure of the growing baby on a mom’s body. Pregnant women are more likely to get up in the middle of the night and experience physical discomfort while in bed.
How to treat insomnia at home
For secondary insomnia that emerges from another medical or mental condition, it’s best to begin by treating the primary cause in order to start sleeping better. In this case, it’s important to work with your doctor to address the root of the problem.
Acute primary insomnia, on the other hand, may be treated from home with one or a combination of proven methods.
Put your clock away
Insomnia and anxiety about insomnia can often become a vicious cycle. When you’re lying awake at night trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep, it’s important to stay level-headed. It can be easy to start counting the hours and become hyper-focused on how much sleep you’re losing. So resist the urge to check the time as you try to wind down. Cover up your alarm or wall clock, put your phone or tablet away, and try out some of the following tips on how to fall asleep (when nothing else seems to work).
Try to stay awake
Kicking insomnia often becomes a mental game. Similar to using reverse psychology, challenging yourself to actually stay awake may trigger your body to soon fall asleep. To properly use this scientifically studied technique, lay in bed with the lights out, keep your eyes open, and focus on how easy it is to stay awake. When you begin to feel sleepy, concentrate on staying awake for just a couple more minutes.
Listen to relaxing music
Sometimes trying to sleep in total silence is not the answer. Many music sleep studies have found that calming music may promote sleep by helping your breathing and heart rate sync up to a tune. Choose something that’s slow and rhythmic that won’t evoke any kind of emotional response.
Try relaxation techniques
There are two methods that have been proven very effective at inducing sleep quickly. You can try them yourself by following a few simple steps.
4-7-8 breathing method
- Lie in bed on your back. Empty your lungs by exhaling through your mouth.
- Close your mouth and inhale as you count to 4.
- Hold that breath as you count to 7.
- Exhale with a ‘whoosh’ sound for a count of 8.
- Repeat the entire cycle 3 - 4 times (or less).
- Lying on your back, relax all the muscles in your face. Breath slowly and deeply as you do.
- Continue down to your neck, shoulders, arms, and chest, releasing all muscle tension in those areas. Let all of these muscle groups go completely limp.
- Pause at this point for a deep, slow breath. Inhale and slowly exhale, relaxing your chest and stomach as you do.
- Continue releasing tension in your lower body. Let your buttocks, thighs, calves, ankles, and feet all relax. Imagine they’re slowly sinking into the mattress.
- At this point, clear your mind by picturing a calming place, such as a meadow with a blue sky above it. If your mind is still racing, try repeating to yourself “don’t think, don’t think, don’t think” for about 10 seconds.
Of course, don’t be too focused on completing these methods in full. If these work for you like they have for many others, you’ll drift off before you can finish!
Write about your day
It’s common to replay your day or think about the week ahead when you lay your head down at night. If racing thoughts are keeping you up, it can be helpful to write them down. Think of this practice as taking your thoughts out of your mind and putting them on paper where they can be organized and “stored” away. You may want to start a journal where you can recall the day’s events. Or if you can’t sleep because of what’s to come, you may choose to create a to-do list for the next day or week.
If you commonly experience insomnia due to an overactive mind, it can be beneficial to adopt writing as a part of your regular bedtime routine.
Read an uneventful book
Reading a book (a good old fashioned book, not an e-reader) is known to reduce stress, making it the perfect way to wind down for sleep. Focusing on a story is a great distraction from whatever stress you have leftover at the end of the day. Just be sure whatever you pick is not too thrilling or loaded with cliff-hangers. The key is to choose something you can easily put down after a few minutes.
Visualize your happy place
Another proven way to unwind is by thinking of the most calming, serene place you’ve ever been (or make one up, if you like). For example, picture yourself lying on a beach in a hammock between two palm trees. Concentrate on how this scene feels to all five of your senses. The warm breeze, the cascading waves, the sunlight peeking through the treetops—the more detail the better. As you consider all these elements, you should begin to feel less anxious and more relaxed.
Don’t default to electronics
Electronics like your phone, computer, and TV emit blue light that inhibits melatonin production, the hormone that tells your brain to sleep. But when you’re lying awake, it can be really easy to automatically start checking emails, shopping, or scrolling social media. Resist this urge by putting away devices before bed, and by keeping your TV out of the bedroom. Better yet, have a few relaxing (or even boring) activities that you can default to instead, like reading a book, doing a crossword, or paying bills.
Get out of bed
It’s important not to develop a negative association with your bed or bedroom. Especially if you’re having trouble with sleep multiple nights in a row, the sight of your bed can begin to trigger some anxious feelings. So if the methods above haven’t helped you go back to sleep, or you’ve been trying to fall asleep for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed and leave the room. In the meantime, direct your attention to a quiet activity and come back to bed once you begin to feel drowsy.
For more resources and information on insomnia, we encourage you to read the following:
Frustrated You Can't Sleep? Try Staying Awake Instead by Psychology Today
Insomnia by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine
What Causes Insomnia? by the Sleep Foundation
Music and Sleep by the Sleep Foundation
How to fall asleep fast: Methods to try by Medical News Today