Insomnia and Sleep Disorders

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep-wake mental health disorder that is characterized by difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking frequently. People with insomnia and other sleep disorders feel unsatisfied with their quality of sleep. Sleep disorders lead to dissatisfaction and distress, as well as difficulties socially, behaviorally, in school, and/or at work.

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Life can often be marked by stress and anxiety. This is a normal response to the fast-paced, stressful world that we live in. Insomnia is incredibly common, and can occur as a result of bringing life’s worries and stressors to bed with you. Unfortunately, when insomnia and other sleep disorders cause tiredness, irritability, worrying about sleep and difficulty concentrating on daily activities, it is advisable to seek treatment.

How common are sleep disorders like insomnia?

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, around 30% of adults experience symptoms of insomnia.

Around 10% of adults have daytime distress as a result of their insomnia and less than 10% develop chronic insomnia.

There are higher rates of insomnia in women than in men. Those with a co-morbid (co-occurring) mental health disorder are more likely to develop insomnia. Middle aged and older adults are also more likely to experience insomnia.

What are some symptoms of insomnia?

Common symptoms of insomnia, and other sleep disorders, include:

  • Daytime sleepiness

  • Worrying about sleep

  • Irritability

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Distress

  • Diminished motivation

  • Impairment in important areas of functioning

Common co-morbidities of insomnia include:

  • Depression

  • Medical disorders

  • Chronic pain

  • Anxiety

  • Substance use disorder

Additionally, a lack of sleep can compromise your immune system and lead to a higher risk of ailments including depression, dementia, anxiety, psychosis, and stroke.

What are the different types of insomnia?

Two of the most common types of insomnia are acute insomnia and chronic insomnia.

  • Acute insomnia: Acute insomnia is also known as adjustment insomnia, or short-term insomnia. It is characterized by sleep difficulties that last less than a month, which frequently arise in reaction to life stressors.

  • Chronic insomnia: Chronic insomnia is characterized by sleeping difficulties that occur three nights a week for at least one month, cumulatively lasting for more than six months. Chronic insomnia commonly has negative impacts on psychical health, mental health, and daily life. Unlike acute insomnia, chronic insomnia typically doesn’t have a causal precipitating event. Around 10% of adults experience chronic insomnia.

What should I do if I’m experiencing a sleep disorder such as insomnia?

  • Therapy: Seek mental health treatment from a therapist that can help you reduce your anxieties about sleep and increase your coping mechanisms. (See more tips below on selecting a therapist for insomnia.)

  • Set a personal sleep rhythm: If possible, go to bed and wake up at the same time, even on the weekends. This helps to regulate your body’s internal clock.

  • Never give insomnia a function: Use an alarm clock, but don’t be a “clock watcher,” as this can lead to frustration and anxiety about sleep – in turn, interfering with your ability to fall asleep.

  • Avoid sleep disruptors: Common disruptors include caffeine and alcohol, which can lead to difficulties falling asleep and a reduced quality of sleep.

    • Caffeine: Some insomniacs benefit from avoiding caffeine after lunchtime; others may cut it out completely. Try keeping a caffeine journal, tracking how you sleep after consuming different amounts of caffeine at different times of the day. 

    • Alcohol: Avoiding alcohol is advisable when experiencing insomnia, as alcohol both disrupts sleep and diminishes its overall quality.

  • Limit in-bed activities: Restrict in-bed activities to sleeping and sex. Avoid watching tv, reading, using your computer, or being on your phone while you’re in bed.

  • Exercise regularly – but not right before bedtime: Exercising in the morning or afternoon is advisable for insomniacs. Late-night exercise may cause unwanted evening energy, which could disrupt sleep.

  • Avoid napping: Even a short nap can disrupt sleep when you’re trying to break insomnia.

  • Breathing exercises: Some individuals experiencing insomnia find relief through breathing exercises, such as the “4-7-8 exercise.”

    • Exhale all breath completely through your mouth.

    • Close your mouth, and inhale through your nose for four counts.

    • Hold your breath for seven counts.

    • Exhale all breath through your mouth for eight counts, making a “whoosh” sound.

What should I look for in a therapist for insomnia and other sleep disorders?

Seek a therapist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I).

CBT-I is the top recommended treatment for insomnia, according to the American College of Physicians. It is a powerful approach that leads to the reduction of anxiety about sleep, and reduces the existing symptoms of insomnia.

CBT-I leads to long term benefits (unlike pharmacological interventions). CBT-I improves sleep and daytime functioning by 70 to 80 percent, improves mood, and reduces co-morbid concerns like depression.

Find a therapist for insomnia and sleep disorders


About the contributor

Dr. Julie Kolzet

Dr. Julie Kolzet, PhD

Dr. Julie Kolzet is a licensed psychologist and founder of Insomnia Relief on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She specializes in insomnia, anxiety, depression, and weight management. Dr. Kolzet works with clients across the lifespan, both individually and in a group setting, providing expert care for sleep disorders and associated challenges.