This article provides a list of some of the most common causes of insomnia. While most people experience the same symptoms of insomnia, the root causes of insomnia often differ.
Take a look at the list of causes below and try to identify which apply to you. Finding what causes your insomnia is a key step to make because the treatments for insomnia vary depending on the cause. There’s no one size fits all solution to cure insomnia.
The 6 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
1. Conditioned or Learned Insomnia
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 less your mind associates your bed with sleep, the harder it will be to relax and drift off to sleep.
Learned insomnia can be resolved by using your bed (and ideally your bedroom) only for sleeping. Your brain will then begin to re-associate your bed with sleeping.
2. Anxiety and Stress
To fall asleep your mind needs to become 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
- Going through a period of depression
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, your 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 things that will probably never happen.
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.
Learning how to relax before bed can really help combat those stressful thoughts. There are a range of different relaxation techniques for you to choose from.
3. Poor Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene is the technical term used to refer to daily habits 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 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
Habits that improve sleep hygiene include:
- Going to bed only when you feel sleepy
- Taking regular exercise
- Having a 30 minute wind down period before going to bed
These sleep hygiene tips can appear to be small and insignificant but they have a powerful influence on your sleep.
4. Poor Sleep Environment
Falling asleep in a relaxing sleep environment is much easier than falling 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 bed
- Too much light coming into the room
- If the room is either too hot or too cold
- Sleeping in a room that you don’t mentally associate with sleep
A good way to find out 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.
5. Mistiming Sleep
Your sleep schedule relies on regular consistent timing. Falling asleep at around the same time each night and waking up at the same time in the morning.
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 sleep schedule.
Mistiming sleep can be caused by:
- Exposure to bright light during the evening (e.g. tablets and smartphones)
- Socialising late into the night
- Night shifts
- Jet lag
Going to bed later each night than the previous night can cause delayed sleep phase syndrome. This is where your sleep schedule shifts later and later each day. Advanced sleep phase syndrome is the opposite, causing you to sleep and wake earlier. These disorders get worse over time so it’s best to get them sorted as quickly as you can.
6. Illnesses and Sleep Disorders
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 leg syndrome, feeling the need to move your legs
- Excessive sleep 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 so much harder.
Some side effects of medication can make it harder to get a good nights sleep. If you’re taking any medication it’s worth checking the label or the little slip of paper in the box to see if insomnia is listed as one of the side effects. Alternative medication might be available, so ask your doctor if you think your medication could be a cause of insomnia.
A Combination of Causes
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.
Qs 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 uncomfortable mattress and slept in the room I worked and played video games. In addition I was taking medication which had the unwelcome side effect of becoming sleepier throughout the day. It was the combination of this that caused my insomnia.
One cause often leads to another, making it harder to break free from insomnia. This is why insomnia should be treated as soon as possible.
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After reading this article, the cause or causes of your insomnia may become immediately apparent. If not, take the Causes of Insomnia Questionnaire. That questionnaire will help you identify the causes of your insomnia.