What Is Insomnia?

Are you exhausted from endless nights of sleeplessness, searching for a solution to your persistent insomnia? Fear not, for we hold the key to unlocking a world of restful nights and rejuvenating sleep. Delve into this enlightening article, where we'll equip you with the knowledge and practical tips you need to conquer insomnia once and for all. Say goodbye to sleepless nights and embrace the promise of revitalising sleep.

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder characterised by persistent difficulty in falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing poor-quality sleep.1 It can manifest in various forms, such as difficulty initiating sleep (onset insomnia), frequent awakenings throughout the night (maintenance insomnia), or waking up too early and being unable to fall back asleep (terminal insomnia). Insomnia can be caused by a multitude of factors, including stress, anxiety, depression, medical conditions, certain medications, lifestyle habits, or disruptions to the sleep environment. Understanding the underlying causes and implementing appropriate interventions, which may include lifestyle modifications, cognitive-behavioural therapy, and in some cases, medications, can greatly improve sleep quality and help overcome insomnia.

In the upcoming sections, we'll delve deeper into the causes and types of insomnia, explore the potential consequences of chronic sleep deprivation, and provide you with evidence-based strategies to effectively manage and overcome this common sleep disorder. Whether you're seeking a good night's sleep or aiming to support a loved one, the insights that lie ahead will be invaluable. Keep reading to unlock the secrets to restful slumber.


Insomnia, a prevalent sleep disorder, affects a significant portion of the population, causing difficulties in falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restorative sleep. Insomnia is more than an occasional sleepless night; it is a chronic condition characterised by persistent difficulties in initiating or maintaining sleep, resulting in poor sleep quality and daytime impairments. It is essential to distinguish insomnia from transient sleep disturbances caused by external factors, such as stress or environmental changes. Insomnia is diagnosed when sleep problems persist for at least three nights a week for a minimum of three months.2

Causes of insomnia

Insomnia can be triggered by various underlying factors. Understanding these causes is crucial in effectively managing and treating insomnia.

Stress and anxiety

One of the leading causes of insomnia is stress and anxiety.3  When our minds are overwhelmed with worries, it becomes challenging to quiet our thoughts and relax into sleep. The racing mind and heightened arousal can make it difficult to fall asleep or maintain sleep throughout the night. High stress levels due to work, relationships, financial concerns, or life events can all contribute to insomnia.

Psychological disorders

Psychological disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) often coexist with insomnia.4 These conditions can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to difficulty falling asleep, frequent awakenings, or early morning awakening. The complex relationship between mental health and sleep underscores the importance of addressing both aspects for comprehensive treatment.

Medical conditions

Several medical conditions can contribute to insomnia.5 Chronic pain conditions like arthritis or fibromyalgia can make it challenging to find a comfortable sleep position, leading to sleep disturbances. Respiratory conditions like asthma or sleep apnoea can also disrupt sleep, causing frequent awakenings or shallow breathing during the night. Additionally, conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), thyroid disorders, and neurological disorders can impact sleep quality.


Certain medications can interfere with sleep patterns and contribute to insomnia.6 Stimulant medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), antidepressants, corticosteroids, and some asthma medications may have sleep-disrupting side effects. It is essential to discuss any medication-related sleep issues with a healthcare professional to explore alternatives or adjust dosages if necessary.

Lifestyle factors

Our daily habits and routines can significantly impact our sleep.7 Irregular sleep schedules, excessive caffeine consumption, late-night electronic device use, and a lack of physical activity can all contribute to insomnia. Stimulating activities close to bedtime, such as intense exercise or engaging in emotionally charged discussions, can make it difficult for the body and mind to wind down, hindering the onset of sleep.

Environmental factors

The sleep environment plays a crucial role in promoting restful sleep.8 Noisy surroundings, uncomfortable temperatures, excessive light, or an uncomfortable mattress can all disrupt sleep and contribute to insomnia. Creating a sleep-friendly environment by eliminating noise, maintaining a comfortable temperature, and ensuring a dark, quiet, and comfortable sleep space can significantly improve sleep quality.

Shift work and jet lag

Disruptions to the body's natural circadian rhythm can result in insomnia.9 Shift work, which involves irregular work hours or night shifts, can throw off the body's internal clock and make establishing a consistent sleep routine challenging. Similarly, travelling across time zones can lead to jet lag, causing temporary sleep disturbances until the body adjusts to the new time zone.

Signs and symptoms of insomnia

Individuals with insomnia may experience a range of signs and symptoms,10 of which can significantly impact their overall well-being.

Difficulty falling asleep

One of the primary symptoms of insomnia is experiencing trouble initiating sleep. Individuals with insomnia often find it challenging to relax and fall asleep, even when they feel tired. They may spend an extended period in bed, tossing and turning, unable to transition into a restful slumber.

Frequent awakenings

Insomnia can also manifest as frequent awakenings during the night. Individuals may find themselves waking up multiple times throughout the night, struggling to maintain continuous sleep. These awakenings can range from brief moments of consciousness to longer periods of restlessness, making it difficult to achieve a restful night's sleep.

Early morning awakening

Another common symptom of insomnia is waking up too early in the morning and being unable to fall back asleep. Individuals may find themselves roused from sleep hours before their intended wake-up time, feeling unrested and unable to return to sleep. This early morning awakening can result in daytime sleepiness and fatigue.

Poor sleep quality

Insomnia often leads to poor sleep quality, even when individuals manage to achieve some hours of sleep. They may wake up feeling unrefreshed as if they haven't experienced a restorative rest. Sleep can feel fragmented, light, or shallow, leaving individuals feeling fatigued and lacking the energy to engage fully in daily activities.

Daytime sleepiness and fatigue

The sleep disruptions caused by insomnia can result in significant daytime sleepiness and fatigue. Individuals may struggle to stay awake and alert during the day, experiencing difficulty concentrating, memory problems, decreased productivity, and an overall sense of exhaustion. These symptoms can impact performance at work or school and affect personal relationships.

Mood disturbances

Insomnia can also have a significant impact on emotional well-being. Sleep deprivation resulting from insomnia can lead to mood disturbances, such as irritability, mood swings, anxiety, and even depression. The ongoing cycle of sleeplessness and emotional distress can further exacerbate insomnia, creating a challenging loop to break.

Daytime impairment

The combination of poor sleep quality and daytime sleepiness can impair various aspects of daily functioning. Insomnia can affect cognitive abilities, including memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. It can also increase the risk of accidents or errors due to reduced alertness and slowed reaction times.

Anxiety and worry about sleep

Individuals with insomnia often develop anxiety and worry related to sleep. The fear of not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep can create a heightened sense of pressure and anticipation, further hindering their ability to relax and initiate sleep.

Management and treatment for insomnia

Addressing insomnia typically requires a multifaceted approach, combining behavioural changes, psychological interventions, and, in some cases, medication.11

Sleep hygiene

Improving sleep hygiene involves adopting healthy sleep habits. This includes maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a sleep-conducive environment (e.g., comfortable bed, noise reduction), avoiding stimulating activities close to bedtime, and establishing a relaxing pre-sleep routine.

Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I)

CBT-I is a highly effective psychological intervention for managing insomnia. It focuses on identifying and modifying negative thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours related to sleep. CBT-I helps individuals develop healthier sleep patterns, address anxiety or stress contributing to insomnia, and improve sleep quality and quantity.

Stimulus control

Stimulus control techniques involve associating the bed and bedroom with sleep. This includes using the bed solely for sleep and sexual activities, avoiding activities like watching television or working in bed, leaving the bedroom if unable to sleep after a certain period, engaging in a relaxing activity, and returning to bed only when sleepy.

Relaxation techniques

Various relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness meditation, can help individuals with insomnia unwind before bed and promote a more relaxed state conducive to sleep.

Sleep restriction

Sleep restriction involves limiting the time spent in bed to match the actual amount of sleep obtained. By reducing time spent in bed, individuals can build up sleep drive and increase sleep efficiency.


In some cases, healthcare professionals may prescribe medication for short-term management of insomnia. These medications include benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepine hypnotics, and sedating antidepressants. However, medication should be used cautiously and under medical supervision due to potential side effects and the risk of dependency.


An accurate diagnosis of insomnia involves a comprehensive evaluation of sleep patterns, medical history, and symptoms. Healthcare professionals may use tools such as sleep diaries, questionnaires (e.g., Insomnia Severity Index), and interviews to gather information. Sometimes, a sleep study (polysomnography) may be recommended to rule out other sleep disorders and evaluate sleep architecture.

Risk factors

Several factors can increase the likelihood of developing insomnia.


Insomnia is more common in older adults,12 with changes in sleep architecture, increased medical conditions, and medication use contributing to sleep disturbances.


People assigned to females at birth are more likely to experience insomnia compared to assigned males at birth,13 primarily due to hormonal fluctuations during menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and menopause.

Stress and anxiety

High levels of stress and anxiety can disrupt sleep patterns,4 making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Additionally, the presence of insomnia can further exacerbate stress and anxiety levels, creating a cycle of sleeplessness and psychological distress.


Untreated insomnia can lead to various complications, impacting both physical and mental well-being.

Mental health disorders

Insomnia is strongly associated with the development of mental health disorders, including anxiety disorders and depression. The relationship between insomnia and mental health is bidirectional, with each condition influencing and worsening the other.

Impaired cognitive function

Persistent sleep disturbances can impair cognitive function, including memory, attention, and decision-making abilities. These cognitive impairments can impact academic and occupational performance.

Reduced quality of life

Insomnia can significantly diminish an individual's overall quality of life, affecting personal relationships, work productivity, and general well-being. The constant fatigue, irritability, and difficulties in functioning during the day can take a toll on various aspects of life.


How can I prevent insomnia?

While it may not be possible to prevent insomnia entirely, adopting healthy sleep habits and lifestyle practices can help reduce the risk of developing insomnia. Some tips for preventing insomnia include maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a comfortable sleep environment, practising relaxation techniques before bed, avoiding stimulants close to bedtime, engaging in regular physical activity, managing stress effectively, and seeking help for any underlying medical or psychological conditions that may disrupt sleep.

How common is insomnia?

Insomnia is a widespread sleep disorder affecting a significant portion of the population. Statistics indicate that approximately 30% of adults experience symptoms of insomnia, with around 10% of individuals experiencing chronic insomnia.14 Insomnia can affect people of all ages, although it becomes more prevalent in older adults.

What can I expect if I have insomnia?

If you have insomnia, you may experience difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or obtaining restorative sleep. This can lead to daytime impairments, including fatigue, daytime sleepiness, mood disturbances, difficulty concentrating, and reduced productivity. Insomnia can also impact various aspects of your life, such as work performance, personal relationships, and overall quality of life. It is important to seek appropriate management and treatment options to address the symptoms and minimise the impact of insomnia on your well-being.

When should I see a doctor?

It is advisable to consult a healthcare professional if you are experiencing persistent sleep problems or insomnia-related symptoms that significantly affect your daily life. Some signs that indicate the need to see a doctor include

  • Chronic difficulty in falling asleep, staying asleep, or achieving restorative sleep
  • Daytime impairments that interfere with work, relationships, or daily activities
  • Increased levels of stress, anxiety, or depression related to insomnia
  • Frequent use of sleep aids or over-the-counter medications without improvement
  • Presence of underlying medical or psychological conditions that may contribute to insomnia


Insomnia is a complex sleep disorder characterised by difficulties in falling asleep, staying asleep, or achieving restorative sleep. It can arise from various causes, including psychological factors, lifestyle choices, and underlying medical conditions. Recognising the signs and symptoms of insomnia is crucial for seeking appropriate management and treatment options. Implementing behavioural changes, engaging in cognitive-behavioural therapy, and, when necessary, considering medication can help individuals regain healthy sleep patterns and improve their overall quality of life. Early diagnosis and intervention are key to preventing potential complications associated with chronic insomnia. By understanding the causes, symptoms, and available interventions for insomnia, individuals can take proactive steps towards attaining restful and rejuvenating sleep.


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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Dr. Lewis Spencer

Doctor of Philosophy - PhD, Biomedical Sciences, General, University of Derby

Lewis is a PhD graduate, where his research focus was on obesity and diabetes treatment with GLP-1 Receptor Agonists. He also has 6 years' experience as an Associate Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology and Research Methods. He is now working as a Health Information Specialist.

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