Is insomnia a mental health disorder?

In his teens and early 20s, Stanley said he would boast about “only needing two or three hours of solid sleep.”

The electrical engineer and father of four says that all his adult life, he would often try to fall asleep by 10 or 11, but wouldn’t actually get there until about 2 a.m. By 5 a.m., he would be “up and ready to go.

“Throughout college, I felt like I was so lucky because I would cram all night and be good to go the next day,” he shares. “When I became a dad, that was good then, too, because I was up anyway, so my wife could rest.”

But in his mid-40s, Stanley says, “I finally stopped lying to myself.”

The truth was that Stanley wasn’t choosing to sleep two or three hours a night. He couldn’t sleep more than that. He not only had difficulty falling asleep, he had challenges staying asleep.

Insomnia is a major sleep disorder in the United States, with one in three people reporting issues with sleep at least one night each week. Insomnia is caused by difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep, but it can also be caused by waking up too early.

Insomnia can be the result of something a person is going through – short term stress, their current work schedule, or their lifestyle overall. However, while insomnia isn’t a mental health illness on its own, it can be a symptom of other health challenges, like depression, anxiety, or PTSD. It can also be caused by physical conditions too, like sleep apnea (which affects a person’s ability to breathe while they’re asleep).

Insomnia can be short-term. If a person is traveling to another time zone (let’s say from Australia to Boston), they may have a hard time adjusting. If a person has taken a job with swing shifts (for example, they may work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for two weeks, then 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. for the next two weeks), that would disrupt their regular sleep schedule and potentially cause sleeplessness. Short-term insomnia is typically no cause for concern (other than a little fatigue the next day while the person is dealing with it) and can be managed by things like blackout curtains, warm milk, soothing music, or complete silence.

But when insomnia lasts for more than three weeks, it may be time to seek the help of a sleep disorder specialist.

Again, insomnia isn’t a mental health disorder by itself. But with 50% of all insomnia cases related to anxiety, depression, or other psychological factors, it’s a good idea to seek the advice of a doctor if you’re on your third or fourth week of poor sleep.

Anxiety disorders are often associated with insomnia, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, or again, post-traumatic stress disorder. Sleeplessness can worsen symptoms of these disorders, and may even decrease the effectiveness of certain treatments.

Insomnia is treatable through various techniques, like relaxation strategies, medication, herbal remedies, sleep restriction, and improved sleeping habits.

But if there is an underlying mental health condition that is causing the insomnia – that’s where treatment can begin.

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