What is Insomnia? Plus, How to Beat It

Posted On May 27, 2022 |

Insomnia is a common sleep condition. This blog discusses what insomnia is, the symptoms of insomnia, and how to treat it.

“There are some nights when sleep plays coy, aloof, and disdainful. And All the wiles that I employ to win its service to my side are useless as wounded pride, and much more painful.”

-Maya Angelou

“It’s painful to live without sleep!” cried a frustrated patient during her last insomnia visit with me. She felt fearful and desperate in her ability to sleep, and hated the dread and exhaustion that resulted after only getting a weary three to four hours of night’s sleep.

Unfortunately the above encounter is not an isolated case. I have seen countless women in the perimenopause transition struggle with sleep and lose hope that they can sleep seven to eight hours ever again.

That brings me to my next question: Do you have a hard time falling or staying asleep? Do you wake up earlier than planned? Does your sleeping pattern lead to daytime distress (perhaps you find yourself losing focus and re-reading emails)?

If you find yourself nodding along, you may have a common sleep disorder called insomnia. While insomnia may sound daunting, it’s actually something a lot of people live with and there are several treatment options that can help. Keep reading to learn more.

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is the most common of sleep disorders. It’s characterized as either acute or chronic insomnia, depending on how long your symptoms of poor sleep have persisted.

Acute insomnia typically refers to difficulty with sleep for at least three days per week, between one week and three months. Most times, acute insomnia is due to a stressful life event such as having a child, starting a new job, or the death of a loved one.

On the other hand, Chronic insomnia is defined by sleep researchers and physicians by three criteria that lasts at least three days per week for three months or longer. They are:

  • Difficulty initiating and/or maintaining sleep

  • Associated with significant daytime consequences, impairment, or distress

  • Persists despite adequate opportunity for sleep

Acute insomnia is seen in about 30% of the population on a yearly basis whereas chronic insomnia occurs in up to 10% of the population. Rates of insomnia are higher in women going through perimenopause.

What causes insomnia?

Nighttime jitters for an upcoming presentation here and there may be nothing to be concerned about. However, if the frequency of the nighttime jitters is consistent with the above criteria, it could be a sign of insomnia.

Furthermore, you may have a medical condition that keeps you from sleeping, such as heartburn or muscle and joint pain. These can also lead to the symptoms of insomnia; however, it is considered insomnia secondary to the medical condition. Additionally, insomnia can co-exist with the use or withdrawal of prescription medications, certain drugs, and alcohol. 

There is also a gray area when it comes to the relationship between depression, anxiety, and insomnia — as insomnia on its own can be anxiety provoking or result in you having a depressed mood. Excessively worrying about your ability to fall asleep (and the potential downfalls of not getting enough sleep) can lead to chronic insomnia if it lasts for longer than three months. This negative habitual thought pattern about sleep is something I see very often in my clinic.

What are the typical symptoms of insomnia? 

Here are some symptoms those with insomnia may experience:

  • Fatigue

  • Decreased mood or irritability

  • General malaise

  • Cognitive impairment: attention, concentration, or memory concerns

  • Problems with social or work performance: prone for errors or accidents

  • Reduced quality of life

  • Muscle tension

  • Noticing your heart racing

  • Headaches

Treatment options for insomnia

While sleeping pills exist and are FDA approved to treat insomnia, they often have side effects. These include an increased risk for memory loss, lightheadedness (which can lead to imbalance and falling), and complex sleep behaviors (like sleep walking, sleep eating, and sleep social media activity) when you are not fully awake.

In terms of treating adults with chronic insomnia, sleep experts recommend cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia (CBTi). CBTi includes:

  • Cognitive therapy: examines the unhelpful thoughts you have about sleep and replaces them with useful thoughts

  • Stimulus control: instructions that limit wake promoting activities while in bed

  • Sleep restriction creates a schedule that strengthens your sleep drive and which improves how efficient your sleep quality is

  • Sleep hygiene: habits that promote healthy sleep

  • Relaxation training: exercises that trains your brain to be calm and rest

Sleep hygiene is habits that promote good sleep behaviors such as avoiding caffeine late in the day or watching TV in bed. And while these are useful, it’s not advised as the cure-all treatment for insomnia.

Having insomnia can be downright painful as it can be a struggle to sleep night after night. Please know that you are not alone, and insomnia is such a common sleep condition. By becoming self-aware and recognizing your thoughts, behaviors, and patterns arounds sleep, you can then take steps to shift from sleepless nights to restful nights. 

There are many resources available online to help you on your sleep journey. If you are looking for 1:1 or group support to move from fear to hope around sleep, contact Dr. Val at www.sleephoria.health to learn more about how you can improve your sleep, starting tonight.

Categories: insomnia