Insomnia is a common condition characterized by the inability to fall or stay asleep. There are several types of insomnia, including acute, chronic, comorbid, onset and maintenance insomnia. These differ based on an individual’s underlying conditions (e.g. menopause, stress, sleep apnea, anxiety, depression, etc.) or the length of time insomnia is experienced (short-term or chronic). It is likely that most people will experience insomnia at least once in their lives. Despite how commonplace the disorder is, there are many myths surrounding insomnia. Insomnia can have negative consequences on a person’s life if left untreated. Understanding common insomnia myths and misconceptions can help you or a loved one know how to best treat the condition, along with co-occurring substance use or other mental health conditions.
Myth #1: Insomnia is solely not being able to sleep
Fact: Insomnia is defined as the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, or waking too early
Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders in the United States. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, insomnia leads to people getting either too little sleep or poor quality sleep. Insomnia can have long-term negative repercussions on a person’s health and well-being.
Acute insomnia can be brought about by work- or family-related stress, big events or experiencing trauma. Acute insomnia can last as little as a few days up to a few weeks.
Chronic insomnia is similar to acute insomnia but lasts for at least one month. For many individuals, chronic insomnia is caused by a secondary factor, such as starting a new medication, pre-existing medical conditions or high stress levels.
Myth #2: Insomnia is all in your head
Fact: Insomnia is a medically recognized sleep disorder and can be treated
Insomnia is extremely real for anyone who experiences it. According to the Office on Women’s Health, 1 in 4 women exhibits one or more symptoms of insomnia. Additionally, 1 in 7 adults develops chronic insomnia over the course of their lives. Insomnia symptoms are easy to recognize. A person with insomnia may display one or more symptoms, including:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Waking frequently in the middle of the night
- Waking too early (e.g. 30 minutes–1 hour before your alarm goes off)
- Lying awake for long periods of time
- Feeling tired upon awakening
- Not feeling rested throughout the day
- Low energy levels
- Mood changes (anxiousness, irritability, depression)
- Difficulty concentrating on everyday tasks
In particular, women with insomnia are at a higher risk than men for developing certain health conditions including heart problems, strokes, mood swings and obesity. Both men and women with chronic insomnia are at a higher risk for accidents, falls, diabetes and high blood pressure. The underlying cause of primary insomnia is not currently known. However, secondary insomnia can be caused by mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as restless legs syndrome, hormone changes, thyroid problems or neurological disorders.
Myth #3: If you can’t wake up without an alarm clock, you aren’t getting enough sleep
Fact: If you wake up in the middle of a REM cycle, you may still be tired despite getting enough sleep
Rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep is a critical component of healthy sleep. Dreams occur during REM cycles. According to the National Institutes of Health, a person should attain 4–5 sleep cycles per night, which include both deep sleep and REM periods. If a person awakens in the middle of a sleep cycle, they will still likely feel tired even if they have slept the recommended amount for their age group. Thus, an alarm clock can be a person’s best friend or worst enemy. People with insomnia often naturally awaken without an alarm clock. Alarm clocks that work best for individuals with insomnia are those that monitor sleep cycles throughout the evening. Thus, a sleep-cycle alarm clock will wake an individual when their sleep cycle ends, rather than at a specific time.
Myth #4: Napping helps offset insomnia
Fact: Napping may hinder, not help nighttime sleep
Depending on the time of day that a person naps, napping could either be beneficial or detrimental for their nighttime sleep regimen. If naps occur too late in the day, they may disrupt a person’s ability to fall asleep at their normal bedtime. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIOA), people should avoid naps in the late afternoon or early evening. Thus, naps should occur no later than 3:00 PM. In order to have a successful sleep, the NIOA recommends that people:
- Awaken at the same time each day (even weekends)
- Go to bed at the same time each night
- Restrict naps to no later than 3:00 PM
- Develop a nighttime ritual (reading, showering, meditating, etc.)
- Stay away from screens in sleeping areas (phones, TVs, tablets)
- Use an actual alarm clock (not a cell phone)
- Keep sleeping areas at a regulated and constant temperature
- Use non-stimulating lighting (reds and oranges, rather than whites and blues)
- Avoid caffeine after lunch time
- Avoid eating late in the evening before bedtime
- Exercise at least three hours before bedtime
Myth #5: Watching TV helps with insomnia
Fact: TV may exacerbate insomnia symptoms
Particularly in young children, watching TV before bed or after awakening in the middle of the night can be extremely detrimental for healthy sleep. Using cell electronics or watching television before bed can stimulate a person’s brain, making it difficult to fall or stay asleep. A study conducted in 2017 found that both screen time and television use before bed had an extremely negative impact on children’s health. For example, children who watched television before bed had on average of 30 minutes less sleep each night, while children who reported screen time on their phones received on average an hour less of sleep per night. Finally, children who played either video games or computer games before bed also reported less sleep per night and difficulty staying asleep. Thus, these results suggest that it is crucial for individuals of all ages to abstain from using their screens before bedtime.
Myth #6: Alcohol helps you fall asleep
Fact: Even small amounts of alcohol can disrupt sleep quality
It’s a common myth that alcohol is useful to help people fall asleep. While this may appear to be true, alcohol substantially decreases the quality of an individual’s sleep. In a study conducted in 2015, alcohol use before bed temporarily made individuals tired. After the initial tiredness period, study participants reported waking up more frequently and awakening earlier than their counterparts who did not consume alcohol before bedtime. Other studies have shown that alcohol consumption can alter the length of REM sleep cycles. Thus, alcohol should not be used if a person is struggling with insomnia — in many cases it will only make insomnia worse.
Myth #7: Insomnia is difficult to treat
Fact: Insomnia is a common and treatable condition
Whether an individual struggles with primary insomnia or secondary insomnia as a result of another condition will dictate the efficacy of treatment. Nevertheless, there are different evidence-based treatments that work well for treating insomnia.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to treat insomnia and can work equally well as prescription medication. Typically, weekly sessions with a therapist that specializes in CBT are necessary. During these sessions, an individual is encouraged to keep a sleep diary to track their sleep patterns, learn relaxation techniques, talk to other people who are affected by insomnia and learn about lifestyle changes to bring about healthier sleep.
In some cases, the use of prescription medications such as sedatives or antidepressants is warranted. However, these medications may have severe side effects. It is likely CBT or other options will be attempted first before medications are recommended by a medical professional.
If you or a loved one are struggling with insomnia and co-occurring addiction, contact The Recovery Village for information about treatment options.
Fuller, Caitlyn; Lehman, Eric et al. “Bedtime Use of Technology and Associated Sleep Problems in Children.” Global Pediatric Health, October 27, 2017. Accessed May 25, 2019. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Insomnia.” Accessed June 12, 2019. NIH News in Health. “The Benefits of Slumber: Why You Need a Good Night’s Sleep.” April 2013. Accessed May 25, 2019. Office on Women’s Health. “Insomnia.” November 21, 2018. Accessed May 25, 2019. Park, Soon-Yeob; Oh, Mi-Kyeong; et al. “The Effects of Alcohol on Quality of Sleep.” Korean Journal of Family Medicine, November 20, 2015. Accessed May 25, 2019.
Fuller, Caitlyn; Lehman, Eric et al. “Bedtime Use of Technology and Associated Sleep Problems in Children.” Global Pediatric Health, October 27, 2017. Accessed May 25, 2019.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Insomnia.” Accessed June 12, 2019.
NIH News in Health. “The Benefits of Slumber: Why You Need a Good Night’s Sleep.” April 2013. Accessed May 25, 2019.
Office on Women’s Health. “Insomnia.” November 21, 2018. Accessed May 25, 2019.
Park, Soon-Yeob; Oh, Mi-Kyeong; et al. “The Effects of Alcohol on Quality of Sleep.” Korean Journal of Family Medicine, November 20, 2015. Accessed May 25, 2019.