We’ve all been there: You can’t fall asleep, you get worried about not being able to fall asleep, and the vicious cycle begins. If you’re wondering what causes insomnia, the answer isn’t always simple, but all that tossing and turning often boils down to some type of stress. From time to time, it’s common to struggle to fall asleep, battle frequent wake-ups throughout the night, or notice your mind starts running far too early in the morning. In fact, insomnia is the most common sleep complaint, affecting over one in three adults at any time. But chronic insomnia usually isn’t a standalone issue. Rather, it’s an actual sleep disorder. If you’ve been lying in your bed wide awake, keep reading to learn what could be causing your insomnia, when to bring up your sleep issues with a doctor, and what types of treatment can help get you snoozing soundly again.
What Are the Symptoms of Insomnia?
First, a quick primer on what this sleep disorder actually does to your body and mind. Here are some symptoms and signs of insomnia:
. Struggling to fall asleep
. Waking up in the middle of the night or too early in the morning
. Feeling tired, sleepy, or foggy during the day
. Having problems paying attention, concentrating, or remembering
. Moodiness, irritability, or depression
. Impulsive or aggressive behavior
. Lower energy, motivation, or performance at work or school
. Being more prone to mistakes and accidents
. Feeling frustrated or worried about poor sleep
Are There Different Types of Insomnia?
Experiencing short-term disturbed sleep is more common than chronic insomnia. In this case, you may experience symptoms for days, weeks, or sometimes a couple of months due to a particularly stressful period at work or a traumatic life event.
Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, means you have trouble falling and staying asleep at least three times a week for three months or longer. It can also be triggered by things like never-ending stress, difficult emotions you haven’t worked through, or constant travel that’s throwing your schedule out of whack.
What Causes Insomnia?
Let’s dive deeper into the most common reasons you may be missing out on sleep:
1. You’re Anxious about Falling Asleep
Insomnia is like an anxiety disorder about not getting enough sleep. Anxiety about sleep and the attempts to try and make sleep happen actually perpetuate the problem. A common response is to try to fix the issue by trying harder to fall asleep. However, moves like hopping in bed when you believe you should be sleepy just turn up the pressure. In turn, you tend to feel even more restless and awake.
2. You Have an Off-Kilter Sleep Schedule
If you’re a jetsetter traveling across time zones for work, for example, or a shift worker trying to sleep during the day, disturbed sleep could follow. The root of the problem is known as circadian misalignment, or trying to sleep at times that don’t match your internal body clock.
3. You’re Stressed to the Max
An overwhelming work schedule, looming debt, caregiving, the loss of a loved one—any number of stressful life events could trigger insomnia. That’s because chronic stress flicks on your fight-or-flight response. This cues a flood of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. When your stress doesn’t subside and that on switch gets stuck, these hormones keep surging through your body at night, blocking your ability to ease into sleep.
4. You Have a Mental Health Condition
Insomnia is a symptom of many psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While the relationship is complicated, researchers hypothesize the link is due to changes like a heightened stress response, issues with neurotransmitters or chemical messengers, plus associated problems with the internal body clock and sleep cycle.
5. OR You Have Another Underlying Health Condition
This brings us back to that “canary in the coal mine” comment: Insomnia may stem from numerous health problems including other sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, or sleep apnea, chronic pain due to conditions like arthritis or headaches, cancer, gastrointestinal disorders such as heartburn or GERD, hormone fluctuations during your period or due to thyroid disease, or even neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease.
6. You’re Taking Medications or Drugs That Keep You Up
Insomnia can also be an unwanted side effect of certain medications or drugs. Stimulants, for example, cause a release of certain neurotransmitters, which in turn may disrupt your ability to fall and stay asleep. Common culprits include: Stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, some medications used to treat depression, ADHD, high blood pressure, or Parkinson’s disease, alcohol or other sedatives.
7. You’ve Got Some Sleep-Disrupting Habits
Poor sleep hygiene can also contribute to insomnia. Staying in bed for long periods of time or taking naps, for instance, often sets you up for more sleep disturbances at night. If you’re not getting enough exercise, working late, going to bed at different times each night, or using your phone or watching TV in bed, you could also be making good sleep harder to come by.
8. Blame Your Sleep Space
Issues with your sleeping environment could also make it harder to get a good night’s rest. Think: bright street lights illuminating your bedroom, noisy neighbors, a snoring sleeping partner, or a mattress or comforter that traps too much heat.
When Should You See a Doctor about Insomnia?
If you consistently gets less than six hours of sleep per night or experiences significant next-day symptoms of fatigue, low mood, or sleepiness, you should consider speaking with a doctor. Generally, if it’s been a few weeks and your lack of sleep is really interfering with your day-to-day life and ability to function, it’s a good idea to seek professional help. Start by reaching out to a primary care doctor; they can help identify whether it’s necessary to refer you to a sleep specialist or psychiatrist.