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Understanding and Coping with Insomnia

Insomnia is the most common sleep complaint. It occurs when you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep even though you had the opportunity to get a full night of sleep. The causes, symptoms and severity of insomnia vary from person to person. Insomnia may include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep throughout the night
  • Waking up too early in the morning

Insomnia involves both a sleep disturbance and daytime symptoms. The effects of insomnia can impact nearly every aspect of your life. Studies show that insomnia negatively affects work performance, impairs decision-making and can damage relationships. In most cases, people with insomnia report a worse overall quality of life. As many as 30 to 35 percent of adults complain of insomnia. It is more common in groups such as older adults, women, people under stress, and people with certain medical and mental health problems such as depression.

Everyone has the occasional night of poor sleep. In many cases this is due to staying up too late or waking up too early. This does not mean you have insomnia, it means you didn’t get enough sleep. If you think you have insomnia or have concerns about your sleep habits, contact Student Wellness, Student Health, or your healthcare provider at home

There are two types of insomnia based on the regularity and duration of the sleep disturbance and daytime symptoms:

  • Short-term insomnia: This type of brief insomnia lasts for up to three months. It occurs in 15 to 20 percent of people. 
  • Chronic insomnia: This type of insomnia occurs at least three times per week and lasts for at least three months. About 10 percent of people have chronic insomnia.

Symptoms and causes of insomnia are different for every person. Insomnia symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Problems with attention, concentration or memory (cognitive impairment)
  • Poor performance at school or work
  • Moodiness or irritability
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Impulsiveness or aggression
  • Lack of energy or motivation
  • Errors or accidents
  • Concern or frustration about your sleep

Insomnia is most often associated with another problem. Insomnia that is not caused or worsened by other factors is rare. These factors may include:


This varies from relatively minor things like work or personal stress, to more severe changes such as death, divorce or job loss.

Other sleep disorders

Some sleep disorders can cause insomnia or make it worse. Sleep Apnea, Jet Lag, Narcolepsy, Restless Legs Syndrome,and Snoring are some of them.

Medical conditions

Many physical illnesses can cause insomnia. People who experience pain, discomfort or limited mobility from medical problems may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Insomnia due to medical conditions is most common in older adults because people tend to have more chronic health problems as they age. Conditions such as pregnancy, particularly the third trimester, and menopause can cause sleep problems. The severity and duration of insomnia often varies with the related health condition.

Mental disorders

The relationship between sleep and mental health is complex. Insomnia is sometimes caused by a mental health disorder. Often a mental health disorder will be found after a complaint of insomnia. Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States and a frequent cause of insomnia. People with depression often have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Difficulty falling asleep is also common in people with anxiety disorders. Other mood disorders such as bipolar disorder may also cause sleep problems.

Medication or substance use or abuse

Insomnia can be an unwanted side effect of many prescription or over-the-counter medications. Common cold and allergy medicines contain pseudoephedrine and can make it difficult to fall asleep. Antidepressants and medications to treat ADHD, high blood pressure or Parkinson’s disease can also cause insomnia.

Drinking alcohol before bedtime can cause frequent awakenings during the night. Insomnia also can occur if you suddenly stop using a sleeping pill.

Caffeine and other stimulants can prevent you from falling asleep. Stimulants also cause frequent awakenings during the night.

Some people are sensitive to certain foods and may be allergic to them. This can result in insomnia and disrupted sleep.

Environmental factors

The environment where you sleep can cause insomnia. Disruptive factors such as noise, light or extreme temperatures can interfere with sleep. Sleeping with a bed partner who snores also can cause sleep disruption. Extended exposure to environmental toxins and chemicals may prevent you from being able to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Habits or lifestyles

Irregular sleep schedules can cause insomnia in shift workers who try to sleep during the day.

Sources and Resources

American Academy of Sleep Medicine

National Sleep Foundation Insomnia

Getting in the Mood (for Sleep!)

How do you set the mood for better sleep? Try these activities.

  • Read. A book, magazine, or non-digital media. Avoid blue-light technology like tablets/ phones/ computer.
  • Listen to soothing, calm sounds or music.
  • Turn off bright lights.
  • Try circular breathing method: Breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breath out for 4 second, hold for 4 seconds. Repeat.
  • Body scan meditation.
  • If you cannot fall asleep after 20 minutes, get up! Do something different for 15-30 minutes, then try again.
  • Take a warm shower or drink a hot liquid like tea or warm milk. This cools your internal temperature and signals your body to sleep.

Better Sleep Tips

8 Tips for Better Sleep

  1. Maintain a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends. 
  2. Engage in a relaxing pre-sleep activity.
  3. Avoid use of blue-light electronics before bedtime or in bed, including smart phones or tablets.
  4. Avoid big meals, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine several hours before bedtime.
  5. Reserve use of your bed for sleep and sex.
  6. If possible, try and keep your room dark and cool at night.
  7. Exercise early in the day or at least 3 hours before bedtime.
  8. Limit afternoon naps to 30-45 minutes. Naps longer than an hour can disrupt regular sleep patterns.