Insomnia, or the inability to sleep, plagues sufferers at night by making it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or sleep peacefully. Insomnia also makes its presence known during the day through daytime drowsiness, the inability to nap, and feeling anxious, irritable, forgetful, or unable to concentrate.
Although it’s the most common sleep disturbance, insomnia isn’t really a disorder. Rather, it’s a symptom, like fever or pain. Finding a remedy requires uncovering the cause. Nearly half of insomnia cases stem from psychological or emotional problems. Stressful events, mild depression, or an anxiety disorder can keep people awake at night. When the underlying cause is treated successfully, insomnia usually goes away. If not, focusing on improving sleep may help.
Insomnia can trigger a vicious cycle. After experiencing a few sleepless nights, some people start to associate the bedroom with being awake. Napping, drinking coffee, having a nightcap, or forgoing exercise only fuels the problem. As insomnia worsens, anxiety regarding the insomnia may also worsen. Before long, a person’s fears about sleeplessness and its consequences become the primary cause of the insomnia.
It isn’t unusual for insomnia sufferers to spend more time in bed, hoping this will lead to sleep. Surprisingly, spending less time in bed — a technique known as sleep restriction — promotes more restful sleep and restores the role of the bedroom as a peaceful place to rest instead of a room of torment. As you learn to fall asleep quickly and sleep soundly, the time in bed is slowly extended until you obtain a full night’s sleep.
Some sleep experts suggest starting with six hours at first, or whatever amount of time you typically sleep at night. Setting a rigid early morning waking time often works best. If the alarm is set for 7 a.m., for example, a six-hour restriction means that no matter how sleepy you are, you must stay awake until 1 a.m. Once you are sleeping well during the allotted six hours, you can add another 15 or 30 minutes, then repeat the process until you’re getting a healthy amount of sleep.
To learn more about why sleep is so important for your health and well-being and learn other strategies to improve your sleep, buy the Special Health Report Improving Sleep: A guide to a good night’s rest from Harvard Medical School.
* This article is a repost which originally appeared on the Harvard Medical School newsletter.