What Causes Insomnia: Symptoms, Triggers, and Solutions

March 28, 2024

Can’t sleep? You’re likely wrestling with insomnia, a sleep thief with many accomplices. Identifying what causes insomnia—the focus of our journey here—can lead to peace and slumber. Expect a clear breakdown of factors like stress, poor sleep habits, the impact of mental health conditions, and arm yourself with the knowledge to combat these nightly disturbances. No excess verbiage, just the essentials to guide you toward better sleep and how Resilience Lab can help.

Key Takeaways

  • Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by persistent difficulties in falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early, and can be categorized as either acute or chronic, affecting mental, emotional, and physical health.
  • Common causes of insomnia include lifestyle choices, stress, mental health disorders, physical illness or pain, medication side effects, and neurological issues, all of which require different management strategies.
  • The management of insomnia can involve a multifaceted approach, including addressing any underlying health conditions, improving sleep habits, therapy, and potentially medication, with professional help being crucial for chronic cases.

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is more than just a minor inconvenience. This sleep disorder can have a big impact on mental and emotional health, as well as physical well-being. Insomnia is characterized by difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, or waking up too early. These sleep disturbances can lead to exhaustion, affecting your daily life and potentially leading to other sleep disorders.

If you find yourself constantly struggling with sleep, it may be time to seek help. A sleep professional can determine the underlying cause and provide appropriate recommendations. Gaining a comprehensive understanding of insomnia, including its types, symptoms, and triggers, is imperative for your overall health.

Different Types of Insomnia

The impact of insomnia may vary for different people. It’s categorized into two primary types: acute insomnia and chronic insomnia. Acute insomnia is a brief period of sleep disruption often induced by stress or major life occurrences, while chronic insomnia lasts for a more extended period and is typically due to various factors.

Differentiating between acute and chronic insomnia is essential as it dictates the treatment approach. We’ll examine these two types and their common symptoms in more detail.

Acute Insomnia

Acute insomnia, also known as short-term or adjustment insomnia, is precisely defined as a disruption in sleep continuity, involving difficulty in initiating and/or maintaining sleep, lasting for a period of less than 3 months. This form of insomnia is often caused by lifestyle choices such as excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption, physical activity before bed, or use of electronics before sleep. Stressful life events and underlying medical or psychological conditions, including anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and PTSD are also significant risk factors for primary insomnia.

But don’t fret! Acute insomnia is often temporary and resolves once the stressful event has passed or when the individual adapts to the new situation. Nevertheless, this condition needs to be managed effectively to stop it from developing into chronic insomnia.

Chronic Insomnia

On the other hand, chronic insomnia is a more persistent form of sleep disorder. It is characterized by difficulties in initiating or maintaining sleep, despite having sufficient time and conditions for rest, occurring at least three nights a week for over three months. Chronic insomnia can lead to significant daytime impairment or distress, such as:

  • Reduced attention
  • Task focus
  • Memory
  • Heightened errors or accidents
  • Ongoing concerns about sleep
  • Slowed cognitive processes
  • Confusion
  • Mood disturbances

Chronic insomnia is often more complex to manage due to its multiple potential causes. It often requires a multifaceted treatment approach that involves addressing underlying medical or mental health conditions, improving sleep habits, and sometimes, medication.

Common Symptoms

Whether you’re dealing with acute or chronic insomnia, the symptoms can be quite similar. Some of the most common symptoms include challenges in falling asleep and frequent awakenings during the night. These frequent awakenings can be attributed to underlying disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Insomnia can also have significant daytime effects. Some common daytime effects of insomnia include:

  • Daytime fatigue
  • General tiredness
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty staying awake
  • Mood disturbances
  • Cognitive issues, which can affect work, school, and daily activities

Additionally, individuals with insomnia frequently report feeling unrefreshed even after a night’s sleep and may grapple with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

What Causes Insomnia?

Having discussed what insomnia is and the different types, we can now investigate the causes of this sleep disorder. Insomnia can be caused by a myriad of factors, including:

  • Lifestyle choices
  • Stress
  • Mental health disorders
  • Physical illness or pain
  • Medication side effects
  • Neurological issues

Each of these causes contributes to insomnia in unique ways, impacting our sleep patterns and overall sleep quality. We’ll examine each of these causes and their relation to sleep disturbances in more detail.


Your lifestyle choices can significantly impact your sleep cycle. For instance, a poor diet can disrupt sleep patterns and create a lack of essential nutrients that the body needs for a good night’s sleep. Additionally, your physical activity levels can also affect your sleep.

Here are some lifestyle factors that can impact your sleep:

  • Poor diet
  • Lack of essential nutrients
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Lack of physical activity

On the other hand, regular physical activity has been demonstrated to reduce the incidence of insomnia, with studies indicating that aerobic exercise can enhance sleep quality to a comparable degree as sleeping pills.

Adopting healthier lifestyle habits, like maintaining a balanced diet and participating in regular physical activity, can enhance your sleep quality and lessen the chances of developing insomnia.


Stress is a prevalent factor in the onset of insomnia. It can lead to heightened mental activity and arousal at night, resulting in challenges with both falling and staying asleep. Stressful events like sudden stressors, periods of high stress, and significant or prolonged stress can induce insomnia.

Effectively managing stress is vital for maintaining good sleep health. This can be achieved through relaxation techniques, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and seeking professional help if necessary.

Mental Health Disorders

Mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, can significantly impact sleep patterns. Recent studies have shown that around 50% of all insomnia cases can be attributed to depression, anxiety, or excess psychological stress. Speaking with a therapist on a consistent basis is a great solution for improving these types of conditions which in return can improve your sleep quality.

These mental health conditions can contribute to sleep issues such as:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Early morning awakenings
  • A feeling of unrefreshed sleep

Ultimately, these issues can lead to insomnia. Anxiety can induce a state of hyperarousal, making it difficult to fall asleep, while depression can cause early morning awakenings or a feeling of unrefreshed sleep.

Addressing these mental health disorders often requires professional help. Some effective treatments include:

  • Therapy
  • Medication management
  • Support groups
  • Lifestyle changes

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-i) is a specialized, evidence-based approach that effectively addresses insomnia, especially when it's entangled with mental health disorders. Unlike general therapies, CBT-i meticulously examines an individual's specific sleep behaviors and cognitive patterns, such as challenging the belief that one needs the TV on to fall asleep because they've "always been a bad sleeper." This personalized treatment dismantles harmful assumptions and introduces tailored strategies to improve sleep.

Throughout the CBT-i process, individuals engage in targeted activities like sleep restriction therapy to enhance sleep efficiency, and stimulus control therapy to reinforce the bed as a cue for sleep, not wakefulness. Techniques including relaxation exercises and biofeedback are also used to mitigate anxiety that impedes sleep. The therapy's hands-on approach ensures interventions are practical and effective, allowing patients to discover and implement changes that lead to significant sleep improvement. 

Speak with the therapists at Resilience Lab to learn more about the personalized care plans that can help you improve your mental health as well as improve your sleep quality.

Physical Illness or Pain

Physical illnesses or pain can disrupt sleep due to discomfort or the need for medical treatments. Conditions such as arthritis can disrupt sleep due to the pain and sleep disturbances often associated with the condition. Similarly, chronic conditions like diabetes can disrupt sleep patterns due to associated health complications.

Addressing these physical illnesses and managing pain effectively can significantly improve sleep quality and reduce the incidence of insomnia.

Medication Side Effects

Certain medications can interfere with sleep, leading to insomnia. Some examples include:

  • Medications for blood pressure
  • Medications for asthma
  • Medications for depression
  • Over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines

It's possible that these medications can disrupt sleep and cause insomnia but you should speak with your doctor if this applies to you. If you think your medication is causing sleep disturbances, discussing this with your healthcare provider is essential. They can possibly adjust the dosage or switch you to a different medication that won’t interfere with your sleep.

Neurological Issues

Certain neurological issues can directly affect sleep patterns, leading to insomnia. Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease can disrupt the sleep-wake cycle, resulting in heightened nighttime wakefulness and reduced slow-wave sleep. Similarly, neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD can lead to hyperarousal, resulting in challenges with falling asleep and staying asleep.

Proper management of these neurological issues, often through a combination of medication and therapy, can help improve sleep patterns and reduce insomnia symptoms.

Get started with therapy today.

Our team can help you find the right therapist.

The Relationship Between Mental Health and Insomnia

As we’ve seen, mental health disorders can significantly contribute to insomnia. Conditions like anxiety and depression can have a substantial impact on the development of insomnia. Additionally, stress is another significant factor contributing to sleep issues as it can cause racing thoughts and increased arousal at bedtime.

The relationship between mental health and insomnia is complex and requires a comprehensive approach to effectively address both aspects. We’ll further explore the connection between specific mental health conditions and insomnia.

Anxiety and Sleep

Anxiety can have a significant impact on sleep, often causing trouble sleeping. Persistent feelings of worry and fear can make it difficult to fall asleep. The racing thoughts and anxiety experienced at bedtime can hinder the ability to easily fall asleep, ultimately leading to the onset of insomnia.

Chronic anxiety can also lead to disturbances in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, such as vivid dreams, disturbing nightmares, and frequent awakenings. Therapy at Resilience Lab assists individuals in managing the anxiety related to their sleep problems.

Depression and Insomnia

Depression and insomnia often go hand-in-hand. Individuals with insomnia may be at a heightened risk of developing depression, and sleep disturbances are frequently connected with depression. Inadequate sleep and insomnia can exacerbate symptoms of depression, creating a vicious cycle that can be challenging to break.

Addressing depression-induced insomnia often involves addressing the underlying depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes can all be effective in treating both depression and associated insomnia.

Stress-Related Sleep Issues

Stress can significantly contribute to sleep disturbances, leading to insomnia. Heightened mental activity and arousal at night, induced by stress, can create challenges with both falling and staying asleep. Stressful events like sudden stressors, periods of high stress, and significant or prolonged stress can induce insomnia.

Effectively managing stress is essential for maintaining good sleep health. This can be achieved through relaxation techniques, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and seeking professional help if necessary.

Most Common Symptoms of Insomnia

The most common symptoms of insomnia include difficulty falling asleep, waking up frequently during the night, waking up too early, and feeling tired upon waking. These symptoms can have significant effects on daytime functioning, leading to fatigue, impaired attention, and memory issues. This can have a significant impact on performance in various aspects of life, such as work, school, and social interactions. This also heightens the likelihood of accidents.

Recognizing these symptoms can be the first step towards seeking help and treating insomnia. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it may be time to consult a healthcare provider or a sleep specialist.

How Resilience Lab Can Help

Resilience Lab is here to help improve your sleep quality as well as your mental health. Resilience Lab offers therapy services aimed at assisting individuals dealing with insomnia by addressing underlying mental health issues and offering guidance on enhancing sleep habits and overall well-being.

Whether it’s anxiety, depression, or stress-related insomnia, the therapists at Resilience Lab are equipped with the tools and expertise to help you navigate through your sleep issues and improve your sleep health.

Frequently Asked Questions

Although the exact answer for your specific circumstances will vary, below are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about insomnia and how mental health conditions can impact it. For a more tailored approach, you can schedule time with one of our therapists.

How do I stop anxiety-induced insomnia?

To combat anxiety-induced insomnia, it is essential to address both the anxiety and the sleep disruption. Establishing a calming bedtime routine can be beneficial; this might include activities such as reading, gentle stretching, or meditation to help relax the mind and body. Limiting caffeine and screen time before bed can also be helpful.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for insomnia is a specialized therapeutic approach that addresses the thoughts and behaviors contributing to anxiety and sleep disturbances. Practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation can also alleviate anxiety symptoms at night, promoting better sleep.

What are psychological sleep issues?

Psychological sleep issues are sleep disturbances that are primarily influenced by psychological factors, such as stress, anxiety, depression, or traumatic experiences. These issues can manifest as insomnia, nightmares, sleep paralysis, or disrupted sleep patterns. The psychological state of an individual plays a crucial role in how they sleep.

For instance, excessive worrying or rumination can make it difficult to fall asleep or cause frequent awakenings. Addressing these underlying psychological issues through therapies such as CBT, stress management techniques, or mindfulness practices can be effective in improving sleep quality.

Why won't my body let me sleep?

There could be several reasons why your body is struggling to sleep. Common causes include stress, anxiety, an irregular sleep schedule, or consuming stimulants like caffeine close to bedtime. Environmental factors such as a noisy bedroom, uncomfortable mattress, or exposure to light can also disrupt sleep. Physical health conditions like chronic pain, sleep apnea, or hormonal imbalances can contribute too. It's important to consider lifestyle and environmental factors and consult with a healthcare provider to rule out underlying medical conditions or sleep disorders.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and needs immediate help, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Clinically Reviewed by Christine Carville, LCSW-R.

Christine Carville, LCSW-R, is the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Resilience Lab. Christine developed the Resilience Methodology, a trans-theoretical training model for therapists to provide individualized, flexible, trauma-informed care. She has also been teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2016 and continues to maintain her own private psychotherapy practice.

Get started with therapy today.

Our team can help you find the right therapist.