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Types Of Insomnia & What To Do About Them

Insomnia, besides being the title of a horrifying Stephen King novel, has a very broad definition. It’s an umbrella term for a collection of related sleep disorders, all characterized by a difficulty falling or staying asleep.

Parceling out specific types of insomnia is useful for the sake of addressing sleep problems appropriately. Identifying which type of insomnia you have can help you pinpoint the right course of action and prompt you to seek medical attention if necessary.

There are three overarching types of insomnia, classified by when the sleeping trouble occurs, though it’s not unusual to suffer from a combination of the three. These are:

• Sleep-onset insomnia, in which one has trouble falling asleep at the beginning of the night.

• Sleep-maintenance insomnia, in which one has trouble staying asleep throughout the night.

• Early-awakening insomnia, in which – you guessed it – one wakes up much earlier than intended and has trouble getting back to sleep.

More broadly, insomnia is also classified as primary or secondary. Secondary insomnia, also known as comorbid insomnia, occurs together with another condition. Primary insomnia is thought to have no underlying cause.

As far as treatment goes, the above is arguably the most important distinction, since improving your sleep hygiene or upgrading your mattress (while certainly helpful) is unlikely to fully resolve insomnia if it’s a symptom of an underlying condition. The range of illnesses that can cause secondary insomnia is very broad, ranging from psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety to chronic pain, digestive disorders, and neurological illnesses.

It’s also worth mentioning that, in some cases, the direction of the causal arrow between sleep problems and comorbid illnesses goes both ways. For example, both depression and anxiety can cause insomnia, but sleep deprivation is well understood to aggravate both these conditions. Thus, it’s important for a treatment plan to address both simultaneously. Meanwhile, primary insomnia is often targeted directly via an adjustment in lifestyle habits, a mattress upgrade, and/or sleep medication in certain cases.

Lastly, insomnia can be acute or chronic – that is, temporary or persistent over a long period of time. Chronic insomnia is typically defined as occurring at least three times a week for at least three months.
Acute insomnia is often caused by a major life change or stressor, like a move or a breakup, or a sudden shift in substance use (whether recreational or prescribed). It tends to resolve once you’re no longer subject to the cause, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t seek medical attention. In fact, addressing the cause with the help of a doctor or therapist can help prevent a vicious cycle perpetuated by insomnia, as described earlier.

In cases of chronic insomnia, you should definitely seek medical attention. Long-term sleep deprivation is a serious health liability, and should never go untreated. Remember, most insomnia is very treatable, and there is absolutely no shame in seeking out help.