True insomnia is more than not sleeping


Q:  I am a 38 year old male, and up until about 12 days ago was a normal sleeper.  Now for some reason I haven’t slept in 4 days.  I do lay in bed about 8 hours each night.  The strange thing is I do not feel tired or sleepy during the day which makes me even more worried.  When I go to bed I lay in a half sleep state for maybe an hour or two then am fully awake until morning.  This can’t be from stress or anxiety because I have none, and I have no health issues.  What can I do to recover normal sleep?


A:   First understand that insomnia is more than just sleeplessness.  True insomnia is also accompanied by an adverse affect during waking hours.  So if you feel no drowsiness, fatigue, or irritability during the day, all that suggests you are in fact getting enough sleep at night.  Even if it doesn’t seem that way.

It’s also highly unlikely you went 4 straight days with no sleep, considering you were previously a “normal” sleeper.  This is not to deny your experience, but generally after about 16 hours of nonstop wakefulness we feel a strong urge for sleep that continues to increase irresistibly until we actually do sleep.  This internal process is controlled by a mind-body system known as the homeostatic sleep drive.

A more likely explanation for what you experienced is a phenomenon known as sleep state misperception, which is very common.  Basically this means when we are lying in bed with eyes closed, in a relaxed state, we are not really aware of when we are sleeping and when are awake, or in some half-awake state such as you described.  Our sleep may be light, fragmented, or fitful — but it still counts as legitimate sleep, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

It’s also a virtual certainty that you have at least some anxiety or stress, at least about sleep, as evidenced by your question and desire to restore normal sleep.  The reality is stress is always with us in some form, as an unavoidable, necessary, and integral part of everyday life.

Stress typically has a negative connotation, but in one sense stress helps keep us alive.  For instance, we have certain needs that may be perceived as stress: a need to eat, a need to earn a living, a need to feel a sense of accomplishment in life.  A completely stress-free existence with no pressure to change and grow would be the equivalent of no life at all.  So it’s probably more accurate to say you do have at least some levels of stress and anxiety, and possibly excessive levels.  The effects are so common and pervasive that you may be chronically stressed right now and not even realize it.

In fact, if  you are having trouble sleeping there’s a very good chance of it.

Because you’ve only had this for a couple of weeks and are not experiencing adverse affects during waking hours, you might be well served by just trying to relax and let go the worry about sleep.  Short term sleeping difficulties are often caused by some stressful event, and this condition typically resolves on its own as the stressful situation is either addressed or we adapt to it in some way.

So providing you continue to feel no negative impacts during the day, there’s at least a chance this will all blow over soon and your sleep system will recover back to normal.

However, if the problem persists longer than a month, be confident you can address it.  See a doctor to either treat or rule out any underlying medical issues, and consider a sleep training program that uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the drug-free standard of care for insomnia.

CBT sleep training methods include specific components to help you understand and control both stress and anxiety, while simultaneously strengthening your ability to sleep soundly.  Many people have used these proven methods to recover normal sleep; there is every reason to believe you can too.

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

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