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What is insomnia?

Insomnia is the word used to describe having difficulty sleeping. You may want to go to sleep but can’t – even though you’re tired; you may wake up during the night, perhaps several times, or you may wake up much earlier in the morning than you would like. Insomnia, which can be affected by age, lifestyle or sleeping situation, is a common problem that many people experience; it may be short-lived or it may come and go but for some people it goes beyond being an occasional inconvenience and becomes a major problem that has a significant impact on daily life.

Symptoms of insomnia

These can vary, but most people with insomnia have one or all of the following:

  • difficulty falling asleep
  • waking up during the night
  • waking up early in the morning
  • feeling tired and unable to function well during the day

What causes insomnia?

Worries about work, finances, relationships or family life are among the stresses that can cause insomnia; difficulty sleeping is also commonly associated with anxiety and depression and alcohol or drug misuse. 

What can I do to help myself?

There are some simple steps you can take to counteract insomnia and improve your quality of sleep:

  • avoid caffeine (in tea, coffee – and chocolate!) later in the day
  • steer clear of large evening meals so as to rest your digestive system  
  • try cutting back your alcohol intake; it may make you feel sleepy at first but it disrupts sleep later when the body starts to metabolise it 
  • make sure you get enough natural light in the day for a healthy sleep-wake cycle
  • take some exercise – but not close to bedtime unless it’s relaxing like yoga
  • try relaxation techniques such as meditation or listening to quiet music
  • if it’s late don’t use devices that stimulate the brain – eg laptops, smartphones 
  • establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine and adopt good ‘sleep hygiene’ by:
  • try to avoid upsetting conversations before going to sleep
  • try not to take your problems to bed with you
  • go to bed when you’re sleepy
  • ensure your bedroom is dark, quiet and not too warm

If you still have problems, try not to focus on them too strongly, as this can help make the problem more difficult to shift. If your insomnia is lasting more than two weeks, or you think there may be physical or reasons for your insomnia, visit your GP. Sleeping pills may be prescribed, but usually only for a short period, as they can be habit-forming, and they do not treat the cause of the problem. 

How can counselling help with insomnia?

Depression and anxiety, painful events in the present or worries about the future can all give rise to insomnia. Talking to a counsellor, someone trained to listen and understand, can help you resolve the underlying reasons for your problems with sleep. For insomnia that is termed ‘chronic’ because it has persisted for more than four weeks, courses that use cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT–I) to help you regain restful sleep may be available through your GP.

Find a therapist for insomnia

Further reading

Can hypnotherapy improve your sleep?

10 ways to beat insomnia

Can CBT help you overcome insomnia?

Last updated on 4 April 2022