What causes insomnia?

Here are some of the main things that can cause insomnia.

Written by
Sean Bruce
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
May 30, 2022
min read
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Ask anybody off the street today, and they’ll probably tell you they’re not getting enough sleep.

Sure, plenty will put their poor sleep patterns down to an endless commitment to ‘the grind’, as if the path to the corner office must be paved with sleepless nights (NB: it isn’t, and hopefully by the end of this article, you’ll know why).

But plenty more will tell you they want to get better sleep—they just can’t.

And while it’s common to take pride in burning the candle at both ends—particularly for us blokes—anybody who’s suffered from insomnia knows nothing positive comes from not being able to get a good night’s rest.

But what’s the difference between not getting the amount of rest you’d like and actually suffering from a condition like insomnia?

If you look around on the net, you’ll get a bunch of answers for this. Opinions differ, with some experts defining a few sleepless nights as “acute” insomnia, whereas others will only diagnose the condition if the problem persists for weeks or more (otherwise known as chronic insomnia).

Whichever the definition you go by, it’s good to know the details, because even a few snooze-less nights can be hell, bringing with it a whole host of psychological and physical problems that can make life harder than it needs to be.

What does a good night’s sleep look like?

This might surprise you, but it’s not set in stone. There’s no definitive magic number when it comes to sleep—some of us only need more than others to stay healthy and fresh, though there is a general consensus in the medical community that between seven and eight hours is the sweet spot for most, but not all.

For that reason, insomnia is closely related to how we feel about our quantity and quality of sleep, and how it affects us throughout the day. Like with so many things health-related, it’s important to listen to your body.

You might experience tossing and turning throughout the night, maybe you regularly wake up feeling exhausted, or you might be the type that sits there wide-eyed until the early hours, dreading the inevitable chirp of your alarm clock.

Whatever it is, if you’re noticing these kinds of sleep issues on a regular basis, particularly for a prolonged period, you could be dealing with insomnia.

What Insomnia might look like for you

Insomnia symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep at night
  • Waking up during the night
  • Waking up too early
  • Not feeling well-rested after a night's sleep
  • Daytime tiredness or sleepiness
  • Irritability, depression or anxiety
  • Difficulty paying attention, focusing on tasks or remembering
  • Increased errors or accidents
  • Ongoing worries about sleep

Why can’t I sleep?

If you’re worried about the amount of sleep you’re getting, it’s important to realise how your day-to-day behaviour might be getting in the way.

Illnesses, disturbing noises, general anxiety and worry—all these things and more can decrease your quality and quantity of sleep. While sometimes only affecting us for a short period, given the right set of conditions, bouts of sleeplessness can turn into chronic insomnia, persisting for weeks or even months.

Psychologist and Director of the North Queensland Insomnia Clinic Andrew Mair tells us there are three “Ps” to the condition.

“There's the predisposing factors, which could be genetic, family history, etcetera. There are precipitating factors, which could be things like having a young family, an illness or sleeping in a location where your sleep gets disturbed,” he says.

“Then we have the third P, which are perpetuating factors, and it seems to be the case that regardless of what initiated the sleep problems, the perpetuating factors are largely cognitive and behavioural.”

This means that if you are experiencing long period without a decent night’s rest, while incredibly frustrating and even debilitating, there are steps that you can take to improve the condition.

How to get your 40 winks

Despite being a massive pain in the arse, insomnia is a disorder that can correct itself, if you follow some guidelines.

“If I had to tell people one thing to do in order to keep their sleep habits normal, it's to have a set wake up time,” Mair tells us. “If you have a set wake up time and you go to bed too late, you'll start to get sleep deprived and naturally you'll end up feeling sleepy, and you'll go to bed earlier – it will self-correct.”

Besides waking up at a regular time each day, Mair also recommends that you keep your bedroom only for sleep and sex. Don’t use it for other activities like watching TV or social media.

Also, let your body tell you when you need to go to bed and sleep only when you feel sleepy, rather than at a specific hour.

“If you are in bed and you're not falling asleep, get out of bed and do something else. Not something particularly stimulating or arousing but something that's reasonably relaxing, and then go back to bed again when you are feeling sleepy,” he says.

“The rationale is that when people try to sleep, it results in them feeling frustrated or mentally and physically hyper-aroused. When that happens, the bed becomes a place associated with feeling frustrated and alert rather than sleepy.”

What can we do about it?

If sleeplessness persists after taking steps to remove interferences from your sleep schedule, it may be time to look for some outside help.

Where’s the best place to start?

“Go and see [a] GP,” says Mair. “People can self-refer to psychologists or to sleep clinics, but realistically general psychologists don't have the depth of knowledge required for treating insomnia and sleep disorders that professionals with specialised backgrounds do.

"You can get a referral from a GP for a mental health care plan to see a psychologist or a sleep physician.”

In terms of medication, Mair advises that while they may work in the short term, “beyond the first week or two of sleep problems”, they aren’t going to be all that helpful for chronic insomnia issues.

The final word

Sleep issues are incredibly common. Most us will experience a degree of insomnia at some point in our lives.

Maintaining healthy, regular sleep patterns should be your first port-of-call. Avoid burning the candle at both ends too often, wake up at the same time each day, find a routine and listen to your body and go to bed when you feel tired.

If you still can’t catch those all-important Zs, don’t hesitate to reach out to a GP and ask for assistance.

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