Is it insomnia or just a few nights of bad sleep? If you’ve ever had trouble sleeping, this is without a doubt a question you’ve asked yourself as you’ve tossed and turned, trying desperately to fall asleep for the 3rd night in a row.
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish whether you have insomnia or if you’re merely experiencing a few restless nights of not being able to sleep.
We’ve all had those nights where sleep doesn’t come easy, especially if we’re feeling particularly stressed, upset, nervous, or angry, or if our minds are overflowing with thoughts of work, family, friends, finances – the list is endless. But how do we know if our sleep issues are nothing more than a short-term concern that will soon pass, or if it’s a persistent sleeping problem, most likely insomnia?
If it is indeed more serious than a few nights of tossing and turning and endlessly staring at the sealing, it is important to be aware of what the symptoms of insomnia are, and to be proactive about addressing them.
What Are The Symptoms Of Insomnia?
According to the Sleep Foundation, studies have shown that approximately 10% to 30% of adults experience insomnia symptoms. Insomnia is characterised by the persistent difficulty of falling and/or staying asleep on a nightly basis.
While insomnia is often used as a blanket term to refer to all sleeping problems and their symptoms, there are a range of sleeping disorders that exist and the signs and symptoms of insomnia can vary drastically from one person to the next. Whether the insomnia is a chronic or short-term condition will have a big impact on the symptoms you experience.
Chronic Insomnia Symptoms
Chronic insomnia is a long-term pattern of having difficulty sleeping. To receive a chronic insomnia diagnosis, you must experience insomnia symptoms / have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at least three nights per week for three months or longer. Most people who suffer from chronic insomnia have a long history of difficulty sleeping.
Besides the above criteria, a chronic insomnia diagnosis hinges on two other factors:
1. Experiencing insomnia symptoms despite adequate opportunities for sleep
Having difficulty falling asleep is known as sleep onset insomnia, while difficulty staying asleep is known as sleep maintenance insomnia. However, some people with insomnia have trouble with both sleep onset and sleep maintenance. Periods of sleep latency (the amount of time it takes to fall asleep) or wakefulness during the night can further constitute chronic insomnia if it exceeds 20 minutes for children and young adults, or 30 minutes for adults. People who suffer from chronic insomnia also have a frequent tendency to wake up earlier than they wish.
2. Resulting daytime impairments due to the severe lack of sleep
Some of the most common symptoms of chronic insomnia and resulting daytime impairments include:
- Extreme fatigue and overall unease
- Mood disturbances and irritability
- Difficulty paying attention, concentrating, or remembering
- Excessive daytime drowsiness, lethargy, and not feeling fully rested or refreshed
- Impairments to your professional, social, or academic performance
- Higher risk of errors and accidents (particularly car accidents)
- Slowed reaction time and a lack of coordination
- Increased aggression, hyperactivity, and other behavioural issues
- Heightened levels of anxiety, stress, and depression
- Experiencing a general feeling of being physically and/or mentally unwell
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Low energy, motivation, and drive
- Being worried or anxious about sleeping / going to sleep (indicator of sleep anxiety)
- Using alcohol, medication, or other aids to fall asleep
- Suffering from tension headaches
- Finding it increasingly difficult to socialise, work, or study
Short-term Insomnia Symptoms
Short-term insomnia, also known as acute or adjustment insomnia, is described as a brief episode of difficulty sleeping. Although the symptoms and diagnostic criteria for short-term insomnia are similar to that of chronic insomnia, there are two key differences:
- People with short-term insomnia experience sleep onset or sleep maintenance problems for fewer than three nights per week.
- While chronic insomnia persists for three months or longer (oftentimes even exceeding six months), short-term insomnia can last anywhere from a few days or a couple of weeks to one or two months, but never exceeding three months.
As short-term insomnia spans over a much shorter time period, it can easily be confused with disorders characterized by temporary circadian rhythm misalignments and disturbances as well as associated sleep problems resulting from environmental factors. Due to the close resemblance, this can make you think that you have insomnia symptoms or that you are suffering from insomnia, when in actual fact you are not.
First, let’s clarify what your circadian rhythm is. Circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock. Different systems of the body follow circadian rhythms, all of which are synchronized to a ‘master clock’ in your brain. This ‘master clock’ is directly influenced by various environmental factors and cues, especially light and dark. For this reason, our circadian rhythms are tied to the cycle of day and night. When your circadian rhythm is in-sync and properly aligned it promotes consistent, regulated, and restorative sleep. However, when your circadian rhythm is misaligned or thrown off, it can significantly disrupt your sleep and result in reduced sleep quantity, as well as fragmented, and lower-quality sleep.
Disruption or misalignment of your circadian rhythm can occur as a result of several factors, including: Irregular work schedules or shift work (mostly affects people who work at night); jet lag; irregular sleep schedules and poor sleeping patterns; unhealthy lifestyle habits; stress, to mention just a few.
When your circadian rhythm is disrupted, it can lead to both sleep onset and sleep maintenance difficulties. However, insomnia is merely a symptom of the disruption and not the underlying cause. Short-term insomnia occurs despite a lack of circadian misalignment.
While short-term insomnia can be an isolated condition, there is often an underlying variable that precipitates the insomnia symptoms. Acute situational stress or a stressful life event can trigger short-term insomnia. Some examples include the death/loss of a loved one, starting a new job, a pandemic, urgent work deadlines, exams, or a major job, life, or relationship change. Short-term insomnia may also be comorbid with a mental health disorder, medical condition, or substance abuse. Daytime stressors related to work, family, friends, finances, and day-to-day life can also lead to short-term insomnia symptoms. That said, some people experience short-term insomnia without any precipitating factors.
Many people with short-term insomnia will see their symptoms gradually taper off, especially if their insomnia occurred alongside a distressing event or temporary condition. The associated symptoms will steadily resolve when the particular stressor causing the insomnia is no longer present or when the individual adapts to the stressor and puts effective coping mechanisms in place to deal with the stressful incident/event that gave rise to their temporary sleeping problem in the first place.
If you are experiencing any of the above-mentioned insomnia symptoms (irrespective if its only three or four or a whole lot more), it is essential that you properly assess your symptoms and identify what might be triggering them. These symptoms can either be a once-off or temporary experience that will resolve once you address the stressor affecting your ability to sleep, or it can be a precursor for something more serious. Regardless if your short-term insomnia or difficulty sleeping is temporary or not, if it is left unaddressed and unmanaged it can develop into chronic insomnia that requires a more extreme intervention.