What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is defined, when the disturbance of sleep occurs over a period of one month or more, on most nights and, that it leads to adverse daytime consequences. You will feel sleepy during the day and feel your performance suffers.

It could be that you find it difficult to fall asleep, fail to stay asleep, wake too early, feel your sleep is non-restorative/not refreshing or any combination of these.

There are numerous causes of insomnia, some more obvious than others. Many can be remedied yourself as they are linked to sleep environment and lifestyle factors that are important to your well-being.

Insomnia can last for days, months or even years. Short-term insomnia lasts up to four weeks and by its very nature resolves itself in time without the need for medical intervention.

On the other hand, chronic insomnia lasts for four weeks and longer, until treated.

A small number of people suffer from chronic insomnia for no discernible reason, however for the majority of sufferers insomnia is a symptom of another problem.


There are 3 specific types of insomnia and it is possible to suffer from a combination of them.

Sleep-onset insomnia

This is where there is a difficulty in falling asleep, regularly taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep on the majority of nights. On average most people without a sleep problem take less than twenty minutes to fall asleep after turning the light off.

Sleep-maintenance insomnia

This is where there is a problem staying asleep and you repeatedly wake up during the night. Many individuals may wake momentarily numerous times during sleep to check that all is right with the world. These awakenings are very short and most importantly, they are normal.

A person with sleep maintenance insomnia wakes during the night and then finds it difficult to get back to sleep. Anxiety is a common cause of sleep maintenance insomnia but it can also be due to other medical reasons such as pain or repeatedly getting up to go to the lavatory during the night (nocturia). When assessing sleep-maintenance insomnia it is important to be aware of what wakes you up and what then keeps you awake e.g. you may wake needing to go to the lavatory but once you have emptied your bladder it may be pain or anxiety that keeps you from falling back to sleep.

Early morning waking

This is where you wake earlier in the morning than you wish and cannot then fall back to sleep. This type of insomnia is commonly linked to depression but may also be related to the changes in circadian rhythm that occur as a result of being a shift-worker, or naturally as we get older.

As we get older our sleep naturally becomes lighter and thus more easily disturbed, so problems sleeping are not necessarily indicative of insomnia in the elderly. Generally, young people most commonly suffer from difficulty falling asleep (sleep-onset insomnia), whereas older people more commonly have problems with waking during the night or early in the morning.


Mental health problems, including and not limited to stress, anxiety and depression are also linked to disturbed sleep. Beliefs about sleep, and the effects of a lack of it, can cause anxiety and exacerbate sleep problems.


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-i) has been proven to be successful in treating insomnia in some individuals. Unlike sleeping tablets, the benefits of CBT-i have been found to persist beyond the end of treatment. It is designed to target both the inappropriate thought processes and behaviours that can lead to sleep problems, and is usually delivered over a course of 6-8 sessions. CBT-i also aims to give you a more realistic view of how much sleep you need and the effects of insufficient sleep.

Find out more about CBT-i here.

Research has shown that people who claim to suffer from insomnia actually overestimate the amount of time they take to fall asleep and the amount of disturbance they suffer during the night, after learning they slept for longer than they’d thought, they began sleeping better.

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