Does insomnia ever go away?

Q:  Does insomnia ever go away on its own?  I just want to sleep normally again!

A:  Depends on the cause.  If your insomnia is caused by an untreated medical condition — which could range from allergies to apnea — your sleep could be negatively affected until you take care of it.

If you have no underlying medical issue causing sleep troubles — a condition known as primary insomnia — your sleep may possibly improve on its own, again depending on the root cause, but also on how long you’ve had the problem.

The root cause for acute or short term insomnia is often some stressful event.  Examples would be a romantic breakup, worry about an upcoming test, death of a loved one.  For most people, short-term insomnia diminishes over time as the problem is either resolved or we adapt to it in some way.  In this case, sleep disturbances typically fade away completely and our natural sleep system recovers back to normal functioning.

Most people will experience acute insomnia one or more times in their lives.  By definition acute insomnia is a short term issue, generally lasting no more than a month.

However, if acute insomnia morphs into a long term concern about sleep itself, then chronic insomnia may ensue.  When that happens, worry about sleep replaces the original problem.  Sleep itself becomes the stressor.  Insomnia is then in effect fueled by a more or less constant stream of worry.

This is how short term insomnia may evolve into sustained chronic insomnia for many otherwise normal people.  This condition can last for years, even decades.

Chronic primary insomnia is typically caused by some nonmedical combination of bad sleep habits and excessive worry about the idea of sleep.  Unfortunately, it’s surprisingly easy for acute insomnia to evolve into a more chronic long-term worry about sleep that becomes self-perpetuating.

When worry about sleep becomes excessive, a number of unintended consequences may occur.  Bed time begins to be associated with dread.  Thoughts like “Oh no, here we go again, another night of tossing and turning” become automatically connected, subconsciously, with the idea of sleeping.  Just the sight of bed triggers worry.  The thought of sleeping becomes a concern, a source of conditioned stress.

In this way, many people become unwittingly entrapped in a negative and self-imposed cycle of insomnia from which it can be difficult to escape.  Mood, energy, and daytime performance suffer as a result.  And because the root causes are typically nonmedical, sleeping pills will generally treat only the symptom, and provide no lasting solution.

But take heart, there is a permanent way out even if you have long term primary insomnia.  Fortunately, there is a lasting solution that doesn’t involve sleeping pills or drugs of any kind.

That solution is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) specifically applied to insomnia.  CBT treats the true root causes for most primary insomnia, and is the recommended standard of care by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the professional association of medical doctors specializing in sleep.

CBT methods allow you to address both the negative thoughts that fuel insomnia, as well as the bad sleep habits that perpetuate it.  These common sense methods combine very effectively, and help most people who try them.

So will insomnia ever go away?  Yes, there’s a very good chance you can at least improve your sleep if not completely recover.

If you have been struggling with sleep issues for less than a month, try planning some relaxing down time before bed.  Set a consistent sleep-wake schedule, get daily exercise, and limit caffeine intake after lunch.  Try to let go the worry.  That may be all you need to recover normal sleep.

But if this goes on for more than a month, check out CBT-based sleep training methods.  Like many others, there is every reason to believe you too can permanently address the real root causes for insomnia, and thereby help restore normal sleep.

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2 Comments on “Does insomnia ever go away?”

  1. Sarah Says:

    I have had insomnia since I was 18, I am now 31. I had kind of thought it was night owl syndrome because as soon as I would see the sun comes up I would get sleepy. I never felt sleepy anytime other than day. My dog just passed away 8 days ago and the past 3 days now I’ve been getting sleepy at night, well 1am is but still! No meds! I’ve been on either Tylenol PM (the first two yrs) or zzzquil since 18! I got my dog when I was 18. Could this be some sort of allergy to my dog? Somehow I still think not but strange coincidence I have to admit. I did just have the flu the same time my dog passed. Maybe I’m just getting older?

    • stephan Says:

      Hi Sarah. If you have concerns about allergies or any other medical condition, your best answers will come from a doctor who examines you and knows your medical history. That said, there could be a number of things going on. One of the single best things you can do to help yourself sleep better is keep a consistent sleep-wake schedule, especially important is a consistent wake time 7 days a week if you can. There are literally dozens of drug-free ways you can help yourself sleep better, for more see the link to the full STS program.

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