What is insomnia?

Sleepless boy staring up

The term ‘insomnia’ covers many types of disrupted sleep. It’s a common sleep disorder that many young people face. It can be short-term or long-term, and can have a big impact on your everyday life.

If you think you might have insomnia, it’s helpful to get a good understanding of the signs, symptoms and possible causes, as well as what you can do to support yourself and get further help.

This can help if:

  • You often find yourself asking ‘why can’t I sleep at night?’

  • You suffer from the symptoms of insomnia and want to know what is causing it

  • You suffer from sleep insomnia and want to find treatment options.

What are the signs and symptoms of insomnia?

Depending on what’s causing it, you can experience sleep insomnia in lots of different ways, so you might recognise some – or all – of these symptoms.

Generally speaking, you might have insomnia if you:

  • have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep

  • wake up a lot during the night

  • wake up earlier than planned and aren’t able to get back to sleep

  • experience tension headaches

  • wake up feeling unrefreshed

  • feel fatigued, groggy or sleepy during the day

  • have trouble concentrating during the day

  • experience changes in your mood

  • worry about sleeping.

Types of insomnia

There are many different types of insomnia, but the main ones are either acute or chronic:

Acute insomnia (short-term)

This can be anything from a couple of nights to a few weeks of bad sleep. It can happen if you’re worried about something, or if your usual sleep routine is disrupted. Acute insomnia can also arise if you’re dealing with a stressful life event, like a bad break-up, loss of a loved one, a job change or exam stress.

Chronic insomnia (long-term)

This usually involves having at least three nights of bad sleep per week for a month or longer. Like with acute insomnia, it can be tied to a stressful life event, but it might also be linked to a mental health condition, another sleep disorder or even pregnancy.

What causes insomnia?

Some common contributing causes for insomnia include:

  • mental health issues, including anxiety and depression

  • other sleep disorders

  • medical problems, including chronic pain, allergies and asthma

  • neurodiverse disorders like ASD and ADHD

  • prescription medications like antidepressants

  • genetics and gender (women are more likely to experience insomnia)

  • using stimulants like alcohol, nicotine and caffeine

  • changes to your natural body clock

  • too much screen time before bed (including gaming)

  • interruptions to your usual sleep routine

  • stress from work, school or study

  • financial stress and managing the cost of living

  • struggling with relationship issues, bullying or loneliness

  • facing housing trouble or rental insecurity

  • balancing time demands like work, school, sports and a home/social life

  • environmental factors, like temperature, light or noise levels in your bedroom.

How to treat insomnia?

When it comes to treating insomnia, a good first step can be to focus on what you can do yourself. You might find one – or a combination – of the following options helpful:

When to talk to a health professional about sleep insomnia

If you've tried a bunch of self-help strategies and your insomnia hasn’t gone away after a couple of weeks, it’s important to get professional support.

First, have a chat with your GP. They can help to identify potential causes, offer some initial suggestions, or refer you to another professional if needed, like a sleep specialist or psychologist.

Common medical treatments for insomnia

Depending on your situation, the following 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 contributing to insomnia. With the help of a trained therapist, you’ll learn techniques for managing racing thoughts, reducing anxiety around sleep, and creating a better sleep routine.

Sleep medication. for insomnia

In some cases, your doctor might suggest the short-term use of medication to help with insomnia. It’s usually a last resort after trying out options like CBT-I.

Insomnia can be really challenging to deal with. It might take time, and a little trial and error, but with the right strategies and support in place, it’s something you can manage and overcome.

What can I do now?

  • If you’re ready to seek professional help, book in with a GP.