What is insomnia?

Insomnia occurs when you regularly find it hard to fall or stay asleep. Although most people will go through short periods of sleeplessness, insomnia can affect both your physical and emotional health. 

Insomnia key terms

  • Sleep
  • Sleeplessness
  • Primary insomnia
  • Chronic insomnia
  • Mild insomnia
  • Sleep latency
  • Circadian rhythm

What are signs of insomnia?

Insomnia can affect your ability to sleep in different ways, usually in combination. 

  • You may find it difficult to fall asleep
  • You may not be able to stay asleep for how long you want to
  • You might wake up during the night and find it hard to fall back asleep

Common signs of insomnia can be: 

  • Ongoing trouble sleeping
  • Restlessness in bed
  • Severe snoring

Common effects of insomnia are:

  • Mood changes, such as irritability
  • Waking unrefreshed and feel tired during the day
  • Difficulty focusing, poor memory and concentration when awake

If you find you have signs of sleeplessness that are persisting and impacting your mood and health, make sure you visit your doctor.

What causes insomnia?

Sometimes there may be no cause for your insomnia, in which case it is known as primary insomnia. However, other types of insomnia can be caused by: 

  • Some medications (for example, medications for asthma or high blood pressure)
  • Caffeine or drinking alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Chronic pain or discomfort from an illness*
  • Stress, anxiety or depression*
  • Grief
  • A sleep disorder, such as sleep apnoea or restless legs syndrome*
  • Working shifts

Your risk for chronic insomnia (insomnia that lasts more than one month) increases if you are older with poor health.* 

*See a healthcare professional if you are experiencing any disorders mentioned above, or if you are experiencing chronic insomnia or symptoms persist.

Preventing insomnia

There are a few changes you can make that may help reduce your risk for insomnia.

If you have recently experienced a stressful event (such as loss of a loved one), or are experiencing anxiety or depression,  you can help reduce your risk for stress related insomnia by visiting a trained health professional to appropriately deal with your grief and loss, anxiety or depression.

Nicotine and other stimulants like caffeine and alcohol can interfere with your sleep. Maybe try avoiding drinking caffeine and alcohol late in the afternoon, or reducing consumption of known stimulants. Smoking can disrupt sleep by inflaming the linings of your airways affecting breathing during the night. If you are smoker avoid smoking at night time or consider even quitting. 

If you work shifts, try to make sure you are still getting adequate sleep and you’re still exposing your body to light during waking hours. You may consider discussing with your doctor light therapy and other techniques that may increase melatonin levels in your body to help you sleep at appropriate times. 

Ask your doctor to check your medications and overall health, especially if you have some of the causative factors discussed above. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned you may have a sleep disorder.

Insomnia management and healthy living

To help resolve sleeplessness, try creating a healthy association between going to bed, only going to bed when you’re sleepy, and get out of bed when you have been awake for a long time.

Consider having a regular bedtime routine to prepare you for sleep, such as going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, and not taking an afternoon nap when you feel tired during the day.

Try breathing exercises and meditation or visit a sleep specialist. Relaxation techniques can release emotional tension and help you relax your body. Audio recordings and sleep machines may also help you calm your mind and body.

Exposure to sunlight during the day, especially in the morning, may also set your internal body clock (circadian rhythm) to wake during the day and sleep at night. At night, try to minimise light and noise in your bedroom, such as bright and flashing lights and try to avoid any ‘screen time’ before bed.

Interesting facts

  • About one in three people have mild insomnia
  • Insomnia affects more women than men, and it is one of the most common reasons to visit your doctor
  • Healthy adults should aim for between seven to eight hours of sleep at night


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To help resolve sleeplessness, try creating a healthy association between going to bed, only going to bed when you’re sleepy, and get out of bed when you have been awake for a long time.