Restlessness, disturbed sleep, and the flat out inability to go to sleep are all forms of insomnia. Look it up and you’ll find any number of definitions. You might wonder if anyone has a handle on the problem. The truth is that insomnia comes in a variety of forms and presents with a variety of symptoms. That might not be comforting when all you want to do is sleep, but then again it might. Understanding the type of sleep difficulty you’re having might lead you to a solution.
Onset and Maintenance
Onset refers to the problem of going to sleep. For example, maybe you’re worried, or you just flew halfway across the country and your internal clock isn’t set to local time. Hopefully this will soon resolve itself and you’ll be able to enjoy a restful night. This form of insomnia generally affects younger people.
Maintenance refers to the problem of staying asleep, and is typically seen in older people. You might fall asleep, but then wake up and can’t go back to sleep, or you drift in and out of sleep. In this situation it might be smart to let nature take its course, but meanwhile don’t do anything to exacerbate the problem. For example, don’t take naps or drink caffeine to stay awake. If you consistently wake up too early in the morning, you might benefit by considering depression as a possible cause.
Duration of a Sleep Problem: Transient, Short-term, or Chronic
Transient sleeplessness is when you have trouble sleeping in one form or another for maybe a week or so, and it’s a common problem. More than half of us experience this at one time or another. It could be tied to something new in your behavior or environment. For example, stress or a new medication might be the culprit. In most cases you can resolve this by identifying the new thing and making an adjustment, or you might try a relaxation technique like meditations.
If the problem continues for more than a week, you might have short-term sleeplessness. In that case you’d be wise to become more proactive. Are you stressed? If so, get help and resolve it, otherwise things will get worse as you become more sleep deprived. If stress isn’t an issue, determine if you’re doing something new, or if you should be doing something new. For example, have you changed your eating habits? Or could you benefit from a new exercise routine?
When a sleep problem continues for more than three weeks, you could be dealing with chronic insomnia. In that case, the best thing you can do is head to the doctor. Your doctor can help you explore the problem and describe treatment options.
Meanwhile, you might keep a sleep journal in which you record all pertinent facts in the hope that you find a pattern of behavior that’s impeding your sleep.
Any number of medical factors could be involved in a chronic sleep problem, and you’ll need a professional to assess them. For example, working with your doctor you might explore the possibility of changes in brain chemistry that might be causing depression.
A very rare cause of chronic sleeplessness is an inherited genetic disease called fatal familial insomnia. It has been traced to only 28 families in the world. In these cases sleep problems usually appear in middle age. From onset of symptoms the sleeplessness progresses, and the disease is usually fatal after about 7 to 36 months.