What Causes Insomnia?

It’s the single most common sleep disorder in the world.

One in four Americans experiences some form of this condition every year, but there’s a huge amount of misinformation about what this issue is and what actually causes it.

It’s insomnia—and it’s one of the biggest public health issues in the world today.

We all know how awful a bad night can leave us feeling, and insomnia can lead to permanently reduced quality of life along with a whole host of unpleasant side effects.

But what is insomnia, anyway?

What causes it, and how can we make it go away?

Read on to find out!

What Is Insomnia?

Image: Man in bed late at night, looking at his phoneLike many mental health concepts, “insomnia” can sometimes be a sort of tricky word to define. 

According to the National Sleep Foundation, “insomnia is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even when a person has the chance to do so.”

But of course, that definition doesn’t do us that much good—we all have trouble getting to sleep from time to time, but that doesn’t mean we all have insomnia!

To help with this confusion, the Mayo Clinic further breaks insomnia’s definition down into two distinct types: acute insomnia, and chronic insomnia.

Acute is short-term.

It’s usually the result of a traumatic or stressful event, and it goes away within a couple days or weeks.

Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, is usually said to involve getting three nights of poor-quality sleep for three months or more.

People with insomnia also tend to suffer from one or more of three sleep problems: falling asleep, staying asleep, and getting back to sleep.

In addition to these core issues, the Mayo Clinic also gives the following list of symptoms:

  • 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

The “3P” Model of Insomnia

A lot of the medical literature in use today relies on something called the “3P Model” when talking about insomnia.

The first P stands for predisposing—underlying factors that make you vulnerable to insomnia.

The second P is for precipitating—that is, an event that triggers a period of insomnia.

Finally, the last P stands for perpetuating—unhealthy attitudes towards sleep, such as stressing about getting enough sleep or short-term compensation strategies that often end up making things worse.

All of these 3Ps work together to cut back on your sleep.

Common Causes of Insomnia

Although there isn’t always a single underlying cause for any given person’s insomnia, there are a number of different factors that can all come together to limit your ability to sleep.

All it takes is the wrong mix of temperament and circumstance, and you might find yourself trapped in a vicious cycle of sleeplessness.

The Way You Think

Some people may be either inherently wakeful or inherently light sleepers.

Image: Worried womanBoth of these increase your chances of developing symptoms of insomnia at some point down the road, since they just make you less inclined towards sleep in general.

Mental conditions like PTSD, depression, and anxiety have all been strongly linked to insomnia, as well.

A lot of people find themselves unable to quiet their constant mental chatter, constantly worrying about the past or the day ahead.

A lot of the time, they’ll actually worry about sleep itself, which is all kinds of problematic.

You know you’re going to have a rough day tomorrow if you don’t get to sleep sometime soon, but the very act of thinking about how late it is and how much sleep you have to catch up on makes you stressed and unable to sleep.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can often help fight some of the more toxic mentalities here, although some kinds of insomnia can never be entirely cured.

This is especially true if you’re taking any kind of medication for your other mental health needs, since many substances can disrupt your natural sleep-wake cycle.

Chronic Discomfort or Pain & Insomnia

Chronic pain or discomfort is another of the most common causes of insomnia.

Obviously it’s not really possible to get a good night’s if you simply cannot get comfortable, and just 36 percent of people with chronic pain report getting consistently good sleep at night, as compared with 65 percent of people without chronic pain.

If you think pain might be causing your persistent sleeplessness, it might be worth your while to consider looking into a better mattress to suit your needs.

Poor mattresses tend to lead to painful pressure points at various areas of your body, which may make it all but impossible for you to relax in bed, or might wake you up multiple times throughout the night.

You can read our complete article on the best mattresses for fighting chronic back pain here.

Poor Sleep Hygiene

There are also a number of more general unhealthy habits that can lead to poorer-quality sleep.

For instance, you usually want to limit the amount of time you’re spending on electronics or in artificial light in the hours before your bedtime.

Most electronics emit blue-wavelength light, which can disrupt regular melatonin secretion and keep your body from feeling tired at night.

You also want to avoid using your bed for any activities other than sleeping and sex, since this helps your body learn to start thinking about sleep whenever you lie down in your bed.

Other nifty tips include working out a regular exercise routine, eating smaller, healthier meals before bed, and working out nightly “rituals” that give your body time to wind down and prepare for bed.

You can read our full article on healthy nighttime strategies here.

Aging Can Make Insomnia Worse

Image: Elderly woman with back painAlthough the amount of sleep you need each night tends to go down slightly as you age, you also take on a much higher chance of developing insomnia.

There are a number of reasons for this.

For one thing, you tend to become a lighter sleeper as you get older, which can lead to you waking up far more often than you’d like throughout the night.

You might also become less physically or mentally active, which can interfere with your ability to sleep, and your chances of developing chronic, painful disorders increases as well.

We also tend to need more medications as we age, which often list insomnia as a common side effect.

Is There Always a Cause for Insomnia?

Given the title of this article and all the things we’ve talked about so far, it might seem at this point like there’s always a specific cause at the root of your insomnia.

Although this used to be a matter of some debate among experts, Dr. Michael Thorpy and Shelby Harris told the New York Times that most medical professionals now believe that insomnia can exist on its own, without any underlying cause beyond itself.

Basically, some people might experience something that causes them to develop insomnia.

For example, you might get a new job and find yourself stressing out over it for the first couple weeks.

This leads to lower-quality sleep, and to compensate for this, you develop some unhealthy approaches to sleep.

You might stay up late noodling around on your phone, or you might just lie there for hours, trying to force yourself into getting to sleep.

Obviously, neither of these strategies is really going to work that well in the long run (and no, it’s not actually possible to somehow “make yourself” get to sleep).

And the thing is, even after you’ve gotten used to this new job and most sources of stress have gone away, the bad habits you developed during that period can haunt you for a long, long time.

Because of this, it often doesn’t make sense to think of insomnia as the mere result of an underlying cause.

Although there might have initially been something that pushed you towards insomnia, it’s all too easy for sleeplessness to find a way to stick around.

Conclusion About the Causes of Insomnia

Hopefully, you now have a little bit of a better understanding of what insomnia is and what actually causes it.

It’s important to recognize this is a legitimate medical condition—not just a fancier word for having a couple nights of bad sleep.

This isn’t something you can just put off, and it’s often not something that can just go away on its own.

Although it does technically take three months of consistently poor-quality sleep for a condition to be officially classified as chronic insomnia, this condition most definitely does not take that long to start having a serious impact on your life.

If sleeplessness is having major negative consequences on your daily life, contact your doctor as soon as possible.

Your health depends on a good night’s sleep.

Getting an extra hour or more every night is can have resounding benefits in just about every area of your life, so seeking treatment is not something you want to put off.

If you have insomnia and you’re reading this at night, contact your medical professional in the morning.

 If you’re reading this during working hours, contact them now or as soon as you can.

Don’t put off seeking treatment for this.

Know your needs.

Take care of your body!

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