This article provides a list of some of the most common causes of insomnia. While the effects of insomnia are often similar, the problems that actually caused insomnia is often different from person to person.
Take a look at the list below and try to identify which of the causes apply to you. Finding what causes your insomnia is a key step to make, as the treatments for insomnia vary depending on the cause. There is no one size fits all solution to cure insomnia.
The 7 causes of insomnia that we’ll look at in this article are:
- Conditioned or Learned Insomnia
- Anxiety and Stress
- Poor Sleep Hygiene
- Poor Sleep Environment
- Mistiming Sleep
- Illnesses or Sleep Disorders
- Combination of the Above
This isn’t something that would have caused insomnia in the first place, but could contribute to it lasting longer than it should. Conditioned or learned insomnia is where your mind associates your bed not with sleep, but with staying awake.
This can happen if you suffer from insomnia, and at the same time use your bed for other activities, such as watching TV. The effect of this causes your mind to associate your bed, not with sleep, but with those other activities. The problem is particularly worsened by the level of mental stimulation of those other activities.
Sitting on your bed while watching TV doesn’t sound like a big deal, but your mind’s association is very powerful. Association is one of the many techniques used in self hypnosis. If you think vivid sleepy thoughts, press your thumb and forefinger together and repeated the process 5 times every day for a week, you will begin to feel sleepy just by the action of pressing your thumb and forefinger together.
The problem of learned insomnia can be resolved by using your bed (and ideally your bedroom but I know this may not be possible) only for sleeping. Your brain will then begin to reassociate your bed with sleeping, and the act of just going into bed will make you feel more sleepy.
When going to bed, it’s crucial your mind becomes calm and clear to help your body slow down and prepare for the big sleep ahead. This means putting the day on standby and letting everything go. If your mind remains active, you’ll have a big problem trying to get to sleep.
There are many reasons why your brain might be over active in bed, including:
- Worried about an upcoming event
- Upset about a relationship
- Excited about the day to come
- Going through bereavement
Most of these emotions are temporary and should pass with time, but the longer they occur, the more damage they will do to your sleep.
Your mind can’t tell the difference between a real event and a vividly imagined event. So if you vividly imagine going on that exiting holiday or failing to meet a deadline at work, you body will react with the same level of stress as if it were happening for real.
Many people get into the habit of worrying about the worst possible outcome of events before they’ve even happened. This puts their body under an extreme amount of stress for events that will probably never happen. If you can’t help doing this, make a conscious effort not to do it in the evening or while in bed.
Ironically, worrying about not getting enough sleep can be the cause of not being able to sleep in the first place. Some people misinterpret the amount of sleep they need and so worry that they’re not getting enough sleep when they actually are (or would do if they stopped worrying!).
The average amount of sleep needed for an adult is around 7 to 8 hours. Teenagers and young adults often require around 7 to 8 hours. There is no exact figure for the amount of time required to fulfil your need for sleep because every person is different. Some people only need just 4 hours sleep per night, although this is rare. If you can sleep less than 7 hours per night and not incur any daytime sleepiness, you may be one of these lucky people who naturally require less sleep.
The article Sleep Mindset discusses how you can achieve the optimal sleep promoting mindset.
Sleep hygiene is a term used to refer to habits or actions that affect sleep. The better your sleep hygiene, the easier it will be to sleep at night.
Habits that negatively impact sleep hygiene include:
- Drinking too much alcohol before bed
- Eating a large meal in the evening a few hours before bed
- Consuming caffeine in the evening
- Stressing / problem solving in bed
Not doing the above would constitute good sleep hygiene, as would for example:
- Going to bed only when you’re sleepy
- Regular exercise
- Relaxing an hour before going to bed
For more ideas on good sleep hygiene, take a look at the article 7 Tips to get a Better Night’s Sleep.
Regular actions become habits that form our daily routine. You could probably get away with, for example, drinking caffeine before bed one night without it affecting your sleep. But if you were to continue doing this so it forms a habit, it could lead to the onset of sleep getting pushed back later into the night, which over a few weeks or months, may cause insomnia.
Good sleep hygiene works the same way in that it often requires a build up of good sleeping habits over a few weeks for you to gain better sleep. Don’t expect to sleep that much better if, for the first time in months you don’t drink coffee before bed for example. It’s the build up of good sleep hygiene that creates the habit of good sleep.
Trying to fall asleep in a relaxing sleep environment is much easier than trying to fall asleep in a stressful one. Small changes to your sleep environment can make a big difference to your sleep.
A poor sleep environment can be caused by:
- An uncomfortable mattress
- Excess noise
- Too much light coming into the room
- If the room is either too hot or too cold
- Sleeping in an environment you don’t mentally associate with sleep
A good way to tell if a poor sleep environment could be contributing to insomnia is noticing how well you sleep when you’re away from home. If you sleep better in hotel rooms or at a guest bedroom in someone house, it is a good sign that your sleep environment could be causing your insomnia.
There are many ways you can improve your sleep environment and many ideas of how to do so are covered in the Perfect Sleep Environment series.
Humans are creatures of habit. Many of our bodily processes work in a cycle and sleep is no exception. Your sleep pattern governs when your body goes to sleep and when it’s awake.
Your sleep pattern relies on regular, consistent timing. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time each night.
Similar to sleep hygiene, good sleep timing needs to built up over time by going to bed and waking up at the same time every night. To form the habit of good sleep, you first need to form the habit of good sleep timing. Bad sleep timing equals bad sleep.
Once you’ve developed strong sleep timing by sticking to a good sleep pattern, you can afford to be a bit flexible with your sleep and wake times, but not until you have developed that strong foundation of good sleep timing.
Mistiming sleep can be caused by:
- Changing work shifts
- Jet lag
- Drugs and alcohol
- Lifestyle choices causing you to stay up late or wake early
- Lifestyle choices decreasing your sleep hygiene such as drinking alcohol late into the night
Constantly mistiming your sleep (going to bed too early or too late) can mess up your sleep pattern and ultimately result in one of two sleep disorders; delayed sleep phase syndrome or advanced sleep phase syndrome. Delayed sleep phase syndrome where your sleep pattern shifts to later times, resulting in you sleeping and waking late. Advanced sleep phase syndrome is essentially the opposite, causing you to sleep and wake earlier.
These disorders can be pretty tricky to get out of. Left to their own devices, you would be going to bed later or earlier each night, worsening the situation.
The best course of action is to develop military precision sleep timing. That is, wake up at the same time each day which will, in time, make you tired enough to fall asleep at night until you can develop a good sleep pattern. It’s far from pleasant, but do this for at least a week and your sleep will get back on track. See the How to Develop Perfect Sleep Timing article for more on this.
An illness can affect your sleep in a number of ways, including:
- Having to wake up to go to the toilet
- Pain or discomfort
- Feeling out of breath, as with Sleep Apnea
- Restless legs syndrome, feeling the need to move your legs
- Excessive or poor quality sleep as shown in sleep disorders such as Narcolepsy
Just your average common cold can be a cause of insomnia. Having a stuffed up nose or a tickly cough can make getting a good night’s sleep much harder. Similarly, suffering from hay fever and dust allergies can effect your sleep in the same way.
Some psychiatric illnesses that causes you to feel stressed or anxious can affect your sleep, as mentioned in the ‘anxiety and stress’ section above.
Depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) has also been found to hinder sleep. Depression commonly results in advanced sleep phase syndrome, waking up earlier in the morning. Depressed people also spend more time in REM sleep and less time in deep sleep, so sleep becomes less refreshing. They also more likely to suffer from vivid bad dreams, which can make sleep a frightening experience.
Some side effects of medication can make it harder to get a good nights sleep (some anti depressants for example). Alternative medication may be available, so ask your doctor if you believe your medication could be a cause of insomnia.
We’ve looked at each cause of insomnia individually but the cause of your insomnia could be the result of a combination of different causes.
For example, as a teenager I suffered from delayed sleep phase syndrome. This was caused by going to bed later and later, which caused me to associate bed time with staying awake. The association meant my mind would be active during bed time. I also had an uncomfy mattress and slept in the room I worked and played games in. On top of that I was taking medication which had the unwelcome side effect of becoming sleepier throughout the day.
One thing leads to another making it harder to break free from insomnia. This is why insomnia should be treated as soon as possible.
Each cause of insomnia should still be treated individually, and not as a collective. There isn’t a one size fits all insomnia solution.
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Each cause of insomnia has its own unique actions you can take to reduce its negative impact and promote sleep.
In addition to this article, you may find it useful to take the Causes of Insomnia Questionnaire that will further help you identify the causes of your insomnia.
No matter how deeply trapped in insomnia you are, there’s almost always something that can be done, so don’t lose hope. Finding out the causes of insomnia is the first step, taking action and changing the way you approach sleep is the next.
For an overall look at how you can help promote sleep, take a look at the articles in the How to Sleep Better series.