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How ordinary sleep troubles become insomnia

Having a few wonky nights of sleep is a normal part of being human. Living with wonky nights for weeks on end or longer is not okay, even though it’s happening for so many people these days.

You’ll know from personal experience that under-sleeping messes with your concentration and productivity, as well as dulling your mood and shortening your fuse. The science shows links between sleep deficiency and anxiety and depression. Long-term, if sleeplessness isn’t addressed, it can be a factor in serious health conditions including obesity, diabetes, heart attack, stroke and Alzheimer’s.

There are many kinds of sleep conditions, one of the most common is insomnia. There’s often a misperception that ‘insomnia’ is an extreme state where a person can’t sleep at all. However, insomnia is an umbrella term covering a range of sleep difficulties from short-term issues to the more persistent or chronic ones.

Let’s look at two types of sleep difficulties referred to as ‘insomnia’. Check out how ordinary sleep difficulties can quietly shift from something that feels frustrating to an experience that seems out of control and unworkable.

What is short-term insomnia?

When life is hectic, it’s not unexpected that sleep patterns go topsy-turvy for a while. This can be known as short-term insomnia and is considered a normal part of the life experience. With short-term insomnia, you’ll experience sleep difficulties several times a week or more. You may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking in the night, sleeping light or waking exceptionally early in the morning.

Short-term insomnia tends to kick off with an identifiable cause or when daytime stress is at high levels. Common triggers for restless nights and broken sleep include things like:

  • A change of circumstance, such as caring for a new baby, losing a job

  • A significant life-event, such as a death in the family, going through a divorce

  • Illness or injury

  • Changes in medication

  • Increased stress at work, at home, or in relationships.

What happens with short-term insomnia?

The general pattern is that sleep will be unsettled for a few days or weeks. As you get support for, work your way through, or adjust to the changes, your sleep goes back to its usual pattern. And all is well again. The lack of sleep during the stressful time is horrible, but you feel confident there’s a reason for it, and you know it’s temporary.

Generally, these kinds of sleep issues can be resolved within a few days or weeks, and there are things you can do over this time to help yourself and your sleep. For instance: going easy on the alcohol and caffeine, being kind with yourself over this time, dialling up the self-care, getting some support to work through the stress, and using relaxation or mindfulness tools.

What is chronic insomnia?

Sometimes the insomnia-related sleep troubles persist. This may be because the life pressures continue. But sleep problems can endure, despite life having returned to normal. The difficulties may continue routinely or erratically, with some nights being fine and others being dreadful. The situation can seem unfair and deeply frustrating.

Feeling upset and distressed by not sleeping properly, the natural response is to try to fix the problem. It’s common to try lots of different things to improve sleep, but they don’t seem to work or continue to work. So, the problem ramps up a level, and you try harder.

In this situation, so many efforts to improve sleep, can simply not work or may even make it worse. For instance:

  • Trying to ‘catch up sleep’ by going to bed earlier, sleeping in or napping

  • Efforts to combat tiredness, like more coffee, energy drinks, chocolate, cigarettes

  • Conserving energy by doing less, or avoiding physical activity

  • Developing strict rules and rituals around sleep

  • Self-medicating with alcohol or cannabis before bed

  • Using sleeping pills or over-the-counter sedatives

  • Becoming hyper-vigilant or preoccupied with sleep.

It’s common to get stuck in a vicious cycle at this stage. You feel distressed about not sleeping, so you take well-meaning actions to help yourself. When these don’t work, or don’t continue to work, you start thinking negative thoughts about your sleep. You worry about your ability to solve the problem. At this point, you may feel compelled to try harder or do different things, and on it goes.

What happens with chronic insomnia?

When you’ve been experiencing these insomnia-related difficulties several times a week, for three months or more, and it’s affecting your quality of life, it’s referred to as chronic insomnia. (Provided other sleep disorders are ruled out). The lived-experience of ongoing insomnia is awful, I know because I was stuck in this cycle for far too long.

Thanks to behavioural sleep science, there’s a clinically-validated way out of the cycle of chronic insomnia, called Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for insomnia (CBTi). It’s essentially thought and behaviour training for sleep. With this approach, you combine your motivation to help yourself with the science-based protocols proven to naturally improve sleep. It’s reassuring to know that there is a way forward and you can actively do more of the things that truly support your sleep, and less of the things that sabotage it.

If you’re interested to learn more about it, check out our book Sleep Easy for a self-directed approach to sleep improvement or take a look at our sleep care options.

Take care of yourself and your sleep,


Sleep Haven New Zealand was founded by Bernice Tuffery, author of self-help book and programme Sleep Easy, who dreamed of a better solution for compromised sleep.


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