Broke my circadian rhythm, now can’t sleep

Q:  I slept OK until several years ago, when I took a job that involved night shift work.  I think that may have somehow permanently broken my circadian rhythm.  Even though I haven’t worked that job in years, I now have a hard time sleeping through the night.  I can fall asleep OK, but usually wake up at least two or three times a night.  My doctor says I have no medical problems, but I still don’t know how to fix this.  Any advice?

A:  From your description, it wouldn’t be surprising if your night work did temporarily impact your circadian rhythm, which is understandable, and even to be expected.  Working nights and trying to sleep days is hard for anyone.  But it is highly unlikely that episode would permanently disrupt your circadian rhythm, especially given your lack of prior circadian issues, and your clean bill of health now.

Your concern about circadian rhythm is well placed.  Circadian rhythm, along with sleep drive, are the two internal components that largely control sleep.  It’s quite possible, even likely, that the short term sleeping difficulties you experienced from working nights turned into something larger that took on a life of its own.  In other words, your short term insomnia morphed into a long term, primary concern about the idea of sleep itself.  This sort of evolved or learned insomnia that lacks a legitimate medical basis is actually very common.

At some point, most everyone experiences short term sleeping problems from any of a host of normal issues we all face.  But short term insomnia usually resolves on its own as we adjust to the situation or it is resolved in some way, and normal sleep returns.  Insomnia can take on a life of its own, however, if worry about sleep replaces the original problem.  When that happens, insomnia can be perpetuated by a more or less constant stream of worry about the idea of sleep.  This is how primary insomnia evolves for many otherwise normal people.

The good news is all of this is fixable.  You can strengthen your circadian rhythm and manage the excessive worry.  CBTI is one good way to do it.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy specifically for insomnia (CBTI) is the standard of care for primary or evolved insomnia.  These methods are entirely drug-free, and help most people who try them.

CBTI will enable you to synchronize your circadian rhythm to your homeostatic sleep drive.  When both those internal systems are in synch and working well, sleep when you want it can become practically irresistible.

With CBTI you also learn basic facts about sleep such as this:  it’s quite normal to wake up several times per night.  Even the best sleepers do it.  The difference is good sleepers don’t worry about the awakenings, they just let them go.  And then fall right back asleep so fast they usually forget about it by morning.

CBTI also includes methods for stress management and control of anxiety.  When used simultaneously, these methods are very effective at restoring and improving sleep.

So be confident you can fix this.  Help is there if you want it.

Explore posts in the same categories: Health, Insomnia, sleep

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3 Comments on “Broke my circadian rhythm, now can’t sleep”


  1. […] lag or DST changes involves changes to our circadian rhythms, one of the key internal components controlling sleep.  For most people making such adjustments […]


  2. […] potential cause for this is simply aging.  As we age, the strength of our circadian rhythm — which along with homeostatic sleep drive largely controls sleep — tends to somewhat […]


  3. […] cannot not sleep.  SRT tends to rev up your homeostatic sleep drive, which in concert with your circadian rhythm, are the two most important internal processes controlling […]


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