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Insomnia: what is it and when should you get help?

A woman lies awake in bed, looking upset, as her clock ticks past 3am.
Using appliances with screens like TV, phones or computers in bed can cause or worsen insomnia.

While it’s normal to have trouble sleeping the night before an exciting or stressful event, when difficulty dropping off becomes the norm, you might have insomnia.

Insomnia is the name given to regularly having a hard time falling asleep, staying asleep or getting back to sleep if you wake in the night. According to the Sleep Health Foundation, approximately 14% of people experience insomnia at any one time, while about a third will have mild insomnia at times during their lives.

What causes insomnia?

There are many different things that can cause insomnia, from emotional stressors to physical illnesses. Common causes include:

  • stress
  • depression or anxiety
  • worry, including worry about not getting to sleep
  • bereavement
  • chronic pain or discomfort.

Shift workers and patients suffering from other sleep disorders have a higher risk of insomnia. Prolonged changes and disruption to your sleep routine and hygiene can be an aggravating factor.

Sometimes there is no clear reason why a person has insomnia, however this does not make the condition any less frustrating or serious.

Sleep habits

People with insomnia might also have poor sleep habits, which can contribute to their problem. Consuming caffeinated food or drinks like chocolate, caffeinated soft drink, coffee or tea before bed, using appliances with screens like TV, phones or computers in bed, and not keeping to a bedtime routine are all habits which might cause or worsen insomnia.

A mug sits on a windowsill, with the image of a lit up city at night behind it.

What are the effects of insomnia?

Insomnia can make people feel drowsy during the day, and effect memory, concentration and learning. Not getting enough sleep can make some people feel more emotional or depressed. Insomnia can become dangerous when it affects people’s abilities to perform tasks that require alertness, like driving.

How can insomnia be treated?

If poor sleep habits are contributing to your wakefulness, changing up your bedtime routine might fix your insomnia.

Try to wake up at the same time each morning and go to bed when you are tired. Go to the toilet before you go to bed to try and avoid getting up in the night. Unwind before you head to sleep by shutting off screens an hour before bedtime, and beginning to relax. Try to avoid caffeine in the 6 hours before you go to bed, smoking at night and strenuous exercising right before bed. Read more tips for good sleep habits from the Sleep Health Foundation.

Addressing stressors, like work problems or issues in your personal life, might help with insomnia. Organisations like This Way Up, Lifeline and beyondblue can provide resources to help you cope with stress or worry, and both Lifeline and beyondblue have hotlines you can call to talk with someone about how you’re feeling.

If changing up your routine doesn’t help your insomnia and the problem is persistent, talk to your GP. They may refer you to a sleep specialist or a psychologist, who might recommend cognitive behaviour therapy or other treatments to target the root cause of your insomnia.

Last updated: 5 July 2017