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  • Reviewed on 12/12
    By Dr. Harrington

Insomnia: Causes


Acute stress - Acute stress, such as major life events (tragic loss, marriage, a job change, or an exam) can lead to insomnia. Sleeping in new settings such as a hotel or hospital room can also lead to insomnia. This type of sleep disturbance is brief. Sleep tends to return to normal once the stress is removed or reduced or when the person learns to cope with it.

How to Cope

  • Practice relaxation techniques such as:
    • Tense then relax each muscle group to help your muscles relax.
    • Meditate on positive and pleasant thoughts or topics to redirect thoughts.

Bedtime Behavior in Children - Children often attempt to delay bedtime. A child may ask for one more bedtime story, take several trips to the bathroom, ask for food or water, or to watch a few more minutes of television. These attempts to delay the bedtime should be recognized by the caretaker and then limited before bedtime. Once this is accomplished, sleep often occurs naturally and quickly.

However, several other factors may also affect a child's sleep. These include fear of the dark, fear of being left alone, or an unreasonably early bedtime. Some children are unable to sleep unless a special blanket or pacifier is present.

How to Cope 

  • Identify and deal with attempts to delay bedtime by limiting activity before bed so sleep can occur naturally and quickly.
  • Eliminate stimulating activities close to bedtime.
  • Keep a regular bedtime routine and schedule, even on days off from school.

Environmental Factors - Loud noise, bad odors, bright lights and extremes in room temperature can disturb sleep. A snoring sleep partner or an uncomfortable bed can also disturb sleep. Other disruptive environmental factors include concerns about safety in the house, caring for a family member and a rapid ascent to a high altitude.

How to Cope 

  • Address these environmental factors to improve your sleep.
  • If your mate snores, he or she may have sleep apnea and should consult a doctor.

Medical Conditions - Some medical conditions may cause insomnia. If you have insomnia and another health concern, such as anxiety, depression, or menopause, you need to talk with your physician about the best way to manage both issues. Learn more.

How to Cope

  • It is best to talk with your doctor about ways to cope with insomnia caused by a medical condition.

Medicine-induced Insomnia - Medications can be a major cause of insomnia. Stopping medicine that encourages sleep after long-term use can lead to severe insomnia. Some medicines have a stimulating effect, causing wakefulness and alertness. These can cause insomnia, often when taken close to bedtime or when the dose is increased. If you take any of these medicines and you are having sleep disruptions talk with your doctor. Do not stop any medicines if you have not consulted with your doctor. View a list of medicines that can cause insomnia.

How to Cope

  • Decrease caffeine intake and limit caffeine to before the early afternoon
  • Ask your doctor about possible stimulating side effects of your medications

Poor Sleep Hygiene - Insomnia can begin with habits or activities that do not promote sleep. Caffeine, alcohol or smoking too close to bedtime can lead to poor sleep. Strenuous exercise or stimulating mental activity can affect sleep as well. Frequent changes in bedtime or waking times and napping during the day can disrupt sleep. Performing activities in bed such as doing homework, talking on the telephone or watching television are also habits that may cause sleep problems.

How to Cope 

  • Try not to nap. If you must, limit the nap to 15-20 minutes.
  • Use your bed just for sleeping and sexual activity.
  • Go to bed and get out of bed at the same times every day.

Psychophysiologic Insomnia - Behaviors that disturb sleep can develop and become the major factors causing insomnia. For instance, an insomniac may "try too hard" to fall sleep. He or she may become tense and even more aroused. This, in turn, increases anxiety about not being able to sleep. Thus, a vicious cycle begins.

How to Cope

  • Sleep often occurs when not trying too hard to fall asleep. Sleep may be better in any place other than the insomniac's bedroom.
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