What are sleep disorders?

An image of a young woman who is awake and lying on her side in bed, with her hair covering her face.

We all have nights when we don’t sleep well, whether it’s having trouble dozing off or staying asleep, or just getting good-quality sleep.

But what happens when it becomes a nightly struggle, even if you’ve tried every trick in the book? It might be a sign there’s something deeper going on, such as a sleep disorder.

Find out what sleep disorders are, what can cause them, signs and symptoms to look out for, and what you can do to get help.

What are sleep disorders?

Sleep disorders are conditions that disrupt your natural sleep patterns. In other words, they mess with your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep or get good-quality sleep. And they can take a pretty big toll on your mental, physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

Sleep disorders can be tricky to spot, as they have different signs and symptoms. But some common ones to look out for include:

  • having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep

  • waking up a lot during the night

  • feeling unrested or fatigued after sleep

  • feeling like you can’t move when you wake up

  • feeling like you always need to move your legs while trying to sleep

  • feeling sleepy, groggy or drowsy during the day

  • snoring heavily or gasping for air during sleep

  • having trouble focusing or paying attention during the day

  • experiencing changes in your mood, or having trouble managing your emotions

  • having regular nightmares or night terrors

  • being more prone to accidents or falls.

What causes sleep disorders?

Sleep disorders happen for all kinds of reasons (and sometimes there isn’t a clear cause), but some of the common risk factors include:

  • use of stimulants such as alcohol, nicotine and caffeine (particularly just before bed)

  • medical problems such as asthma, chronic pain, obesity, severe allergies or a nerve condition

  • mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and stress

  • medications such as steroids, diuretics, painkillers, antidepressants and heart medications (chat to your GP if you think this is relevant to you)

  • natural changes to your body clock during adolescence

  • genetics and family history

  • too much time spent on screen-based devices just before bed.

What are the common types of sleep disorders?


There are many different types of insomnia, but the two main ones are acute insomnia (short-term) and chronic insomnia (long-term). Having insomnia might mean you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or that you wake up and can’t get back to sleep.

It’s a pretty common sleep disorder, with around 66 per cent of young Australians experiencing symptoms of insomnia. Find out more about the signs, symptoms and causes here.

Sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea happens when your breathing is disrupted during sleep, which can cause you to wake up a lot in the night, sometimes gasping or choking for air. It’s a pretty unpleasant feeling, and the main signs tend to be snoring heavily at night and feeling super tired during the day. While it’s a very common disorder, it often goes undetected and is more common in men than in women.

Restless legs syndrome

If you have restless legs syndrome (RLS), you’ll tend to experience an unpleasant and tingly sensation in your legs while trying to fall asleep, which causes a strong urge to move them. While this gets rid of the tingling temporarily, it also makes it hard to fall asleep. And because of these constant disruptions, you’re more likely to feel really tired during the day. RLS is found in 2–5 per cent of people, and while it can start in early adulthood, it’s more common in middle-aged and older people.


Narcolepsy is much more than just dozing off during a boring lecture. It’s a rare sleep disorder (found in around 4 in 10,000 people) caused by a problem in the part of the brain that controls your sleeping. You may experience sudden and uncontrollable bouts of sleep, or ‘sleep attacks’, which can happen even while you’re doing something active – like chatting, working or driving – no matter how much sleep you got the previous night. People with narcolepsy can also experience sleep paralysis.

Delayed sleep phase syndrome

Delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) is a circadian rhythm disorder that can happen at any age, but it’s most common in young people (around 7 per cent of teenagers). If you have DSPS, your body wants to go to sleep and wake up later than usual. This makes it hard to fall asleep at the times you actually want to and can throw off your sleep schedule. You may also be sleepy during the day or have trouble concentrating.


Have you ever experienced unusual movements, actions, emotions or sensations while you’re trying to fall asleep, or during sleep, or when you’re on the cusp of waking up? Parasomnias are disruptive sleep-related disorders and include sleepwalkingsleep terrors, frequent nightmares (which may point to nightmare disorder) and sleep paralysis.

Image of young woman on a lounge with headphones on, writing in a journal.

How are sleep disorders treated?

The good news is, there are ways to tackle sleep disorders. If you’re worried you might be dealing with one, have a chat with your GP. They can help to identify possible causes, offer some initial recommendations, or refer you to another professional, like a sleep specialist or mental health professional.If you’ve sought out professional help, your treatment will depend on your situation. Whether you’re working with a GP, sleep specialist or psychologist (or all three), they can help to tailor a treatment plan specifically for you. Often, the best way to manage a sleep disorder is with a combination of options. Here are some common treatments:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). CBT-I focuses on changing unhelpful ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that might be causing insomnia. With the help of a trained therapist, you’ll learn techniques to manage racing thoughts, reduce anxiety around sleep, and establish a better sleep routine.

  • Improving sleep hygiene. Building better sleep hygiene often works in tandem with most other treatments. It’s all about things you can do to set yourself up for quality sleep, like sticking to a sleep schedule, getting into a relaxing routine, creating a sleep-friendly bedroom and building healthy habits into your day.

  • Relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and mindfulness meditation can help to calm your mind and lower your stress level before sleep.

  • Light therapy. There’s a strong connection between light and sleep, especially if you're dealing with insomnia or a circadian rhythm sleep disorder. It works by exposing yourself to certain types of light at specific times (under the guidance of a professional), which can help to regulate your body clock and improve your sleep–wake patterns.

  • Lifestyle changes. There are a bunch of healthy lifestyle habits that promote good sleep, such as exercising and eating well, limiting your nicotine, alcohol and caffeine intake, and doing activities and hobbies that help you to manage stress.

  • Medication. In some cases (often as a last resort), a doctor might prescribe appropriate medication or supplements to help treat sleep disorders.

What can I do now?

  • Want tips for improving your sleep? Check out our article on how to get a good night’s sleep.

  • Watch our Ask a Therapist: Sleep issues video for tips on improving your sleep.