Insomnia: What is it and How Can I Get More Sleep?

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD
November 4, 2018

We all know what it is like to try to get through a day without a good night’s sleep; brain fog, lack of energy both mentally and physically, and mood swings are common when quality sleep is missing the night before. Some people experience this night after night, causing them to experience significant difficulties in their overall functioning day to day. Those who experience difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for longer periods of time tend to experience more severe repercussions, including decreased memory functioning, struggles with bodily health and immune system development, and general feelings of mental and physical wellness. Mental health professionals often categorize these kinds of symptoms as sleep-wake disorders, of which there are many different kinds of disorders that impact a person’s ability to get quality and enriching sleep.

One of the main sleep-wake disorders often treated by mental health professionals is insomnia. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (DSM-V), insomnia involves the difficulty of getting to sleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early and being unable to return to sleep for at least 3 nights a week for at least 3 months. Here are the symptoms that generally accompany insomnia disorders

  • Trouble falling asleep at night
  • Lying awake for long periods of time
  • Waking several times during the night
  • Waking up early unable to get back to sleep
  • Not feeling refreshed after sleeping
  • Feeling fatigued or sleepy during the day
  • Having difficultly focusing on a task
  • Feeling irritable

The way that insomnia is diagnosed is if a person meets most of these criteria and experiences difficulty in functioning throughout their normal life and causes significant distress or difficulty completing tasks.

Mental health professionals will work with medical professionals to rule out medical disorders prior to any diagnosis of insomnia. Once an insomnia diagnosis is confirmed, mental health and medical professionals will work together to come up with a plan to assist patients with managing the symptoms and helping them to get more quality sleep. Often medication is prescribed in addition to therapy to help people work through possible mental or emotional reasons for their insomnia, to help them decrease stress and anxiety that may be impacting sleep, and to troubleshoot ways to improve sleep using strategies to help people get to sleep and stay to sleep. Here are some of the common treatments for insomnia disorder:

  • Medication
    • Medication is often the first treatment for insomnia symptoms; some people notice benefit with over-the-counter supplements that help to sleep such as melatonin and other sleep-enhancing herbal remedies, while others may end up being prescribed sleeping pills, or hypnotics, that work to keep people asleep throughout the night.
  • Therapy Interventions
    • Most people who experience insomnia are also experiencing stress, discomfort, and anxiety that affect their ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Mental health professionals will work with these sufferers on understanding their own mental health and how their thoughts can affect how they are feeling and the quality of their sleep. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often effective in helping people who are suffering with insomnia to improve their ability to use techniques to help them decrease their stress, increase their coping and relaxation skills, and improving the way they think (and feel) about sleep.
    • Often, this is incorporated with developing a consistent and structured sleep plan to help them decrease distraction or ineffective patterns that arise that make sleep more difficult. Professionals often describe this as getting effective “sleep hygiene” and help people to develop plans to get their sleep on track.
Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD

Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events

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