The difference between a poor night's sleep and insomnia


Marianna Kilburn
Qualified Life Coach
@MariannaKilburn
Ask Marianna


02 November 2018

Why is insomnia different from other sleep problems?

The UK definitely has a turbulent relationship with sleep, with studies and surveys increasingly finding that the majority of us just aren’t meeting our sleep requirements. In 2013, the Great British Bedtime Report found that around a third of us are just getting by on 5-6 hours a night while in 2017, a wellness survey by Aviva discovered that 31% of participants believed they were suffering from insomnia.12   

Not exactly good news considering all of the health problems attached to sleep deprivation but something that seems to confuse a lot of people is where to draw the line between a poor night’s sleep and insomnia. This is completely understandable – issues like sleep deprivation and other symptoms can all be caused by insomnia.

Officially, according to the NHS, you are considered to be an insomniac if you fulfil the following requirements:

  • You wake up several times during the night
  • You find it difficult to get to sleep
  • You find it difficult to nap during the day
  • You lie awake at night

Of course, these are very general guidelines and could probably apply to sleep problems unrelated to insomnia. That’s why below I’m going to outline three key differences that should be able to tell you whether or not you are suffering from insomnia or another sleep-related issue.

Insomnia tends to be chronic

Although acute insomnia may manifest temporarily due to psychological stress, if your sleep troubles have been persistently on going then it’s likely you’re in the grips on chronic insomnia. Chronic insomnia is extremely persistent which is why many sleep experts abide by the 3-3-3 rule. This rule isn’t officially sanctioned but most sleep experts generally agree that if you’ve been struggling to sleep for over 30 minutes more than three times a week for more than three months, then it’s probably chronic insomnia rather than another sleep problem.

 It’s out with your power to control

The hard truth is that most of the sleep problems we experience are within our control. If you’re sleep deprived because you’ve chosen to stay up late or because of poor sleep hygiene habits then you do have the power to change these behaviours which should hopefully ease any sleep problems. However, with insomnia although there can be triggers, sometimes there is no clear-cut explanation which just contributes to the frustration that most sufferers feel.

It’s often related to another health problem

Lifestyle factors such as stress and poor eating habits often contribute to a poor night’s sleep but, in the case of insomnia, it’s often linked to another chronic illness such as fibromyalgia, arthritis or chronic pain. These problems can interrupt your sleep far more aggressively than mild stress or an unhealthy dinner so often, in order to alleviate insomnia symptoms, sufferers first have to tackle these health issues.

Insomnia could be linked to brain function

According to the Sleep Foundation, many researchers are starting to believe that insomnia could be due to a problem with your sleep/wake cycle, with your brain struggling to switch off.3 

Medication is often used to treat insomnia

As I’ve mentioned, most sufferers of sleep deprivation can rectify their problems by making simple changes to their diets or habits but, in the case of insomnia, often medication has to be prescribed. This could range from sleeping pills to antidepressants depending on the underlying cause and, in some instances, medication can be a real trigger of insomnia, forming a vicious cycle. 

What are the causes of insomnia?

Insomnia does share many of the same triggers as conventional sleep problems so here I’m going to take a look at some of the main causes of insomnia and examine the similarities and any points of difference. Please bear in mind that these are just a few of the more common causes –if you want to explore some of the more unusual triggers of insomnia, I’d recommend checking out my blog ‘7 unusual causes of insomnia.’

Stress

Stress has a lot to answer for when it comes to our health and our sleep patterns definitely suffer when this emotion crops up. Short-term stress can lead to a bout of acute insomnia – this is insomnia that arises for a short period of time and usually resolves itself when the trigger is overcome. A poor night’s sleep might occur the night before an exam for example, or in the lead up to a work presentation.

That’s why when we talk about insomnia, chronic insomnia is normally more problematic as this usually arises as a result of long-term stress or anxiety – the loss of a loved one, family struggles, ongoing financial problems etc. Often, over time, this kind of emotional turbulence can sometimes devolve into a larger mood problem such as depression

Shift work

Shift work can disrupt your sleep pattern in a wide variety of ways, upsetting your circadian rhythm and resulting in sleep deprivation. It’s these interruptions to your circadian rhythm that can result in insomnia. I’ve already mentioned how many sleep experts now theorise that insomnia arises in the first place due to an imbalance in your sleep/wake cycle and working night shifts long term definitely will contribute to this problem and possibly stimulate chronic insomnia. 

Medication

Unfortunately, using drugs can be a huge insomnia trigger, whether it’s alcohol, caffeine, or something prescribed by your doctor. Medications such as alpha-blockers, beta-blockers, statins and corticosteroids all come with a list of side-effects and sometimes insomnia and sleep disturbances can arise. However, that’s not an excuse to stop taking your medication but if you feel your sleep problems could be derived from your medication, it’s important to speak to your doctor about the issue. They may be able to offer alternatives or suggestions on how to overcome this particular issue. 

Sleep anxiety

Sleep anxiety often occurs in those who suffer from insomnia as their desperation to fall asleep turns into a real stress trigger. If you’re lying awake at night staring at your alarm clock which reads 0305, you’re probably calculating how many hours you have left before you have to get up, increasing your fixation on sleep which actually only makes the matter worse. If this is happening on a regular basis, as is often the case with insomnia, your bed can turn from a place of relaxation into a stressful environment. That’s why, if you do find yourself struggling to sleep, I recommend actually getting up and out of your bed. Try to sit in a darkened room for a little while until you feel yourself starting to drift – then you can move back to the bedroom.

How can you go about treating insomnia?

Okay, so insomnia can be an extremely unpleasant sleep condition but how do you go about resolving it? Well sometimes, like other sleep problems, simply practicing good sleep hygiene steps and managing issues such as stress can make a real difference as I discuss in my blog, ’10 ways to fight insomnia.’ You could also try our gentle sleep remedy Dormeasan, which works to relax your nervous system, making it easier for you to drift off into a deep, natural sleep.

However, what works for you can depend on the underlying trigger which, as I’ve mentioned, isn’t always easy to discern and can sometimes be linked to more serious medical issues. In these instances, the best thing you can do would be to speak to a practitioner or doctor who can diagnose you and work with you to get your sleep patterns back under control. 

1https://www.sleepcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/The-Great-British-Bedtime-Report.pdf

2https://www.aviva.com/newsroom/news-releases/2017/10/Sleepless-cities-revealed-as-one-in-three-adults-suffer-from-insomnia/

3https://www.sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/content/what-causes-insomnia

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