Acute vs. Chronic: Types and of Insomnia and Their Causes
Insomnia is typically identified as experiencing difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep long enough to feel refreshed the next morning.i Several different factors can trigger this widespread sleep disorder, which affects around 16 million people in the UK.ii
Short-term stressors, such as job changes, financial problems, or hormonal changes, such as menstruation or the menopause, can cause acute insomnia, which only lasts for a few days or weeks. Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, persists for much longer. Often, it can be a comorbidity of long-term health problems, like chronic pain, gastrointestinal issues or mental health conditions.
Insomnia can be a perplexing subject — but this guide aims to simplify it. We’ll explore the different types of insomnia and distil the common causes of each.
What are the symptoms of insomnia?
Often, people with insomnia experience some of the following symptoms:iii
Difficulty falling asleep
Waking up too early in the morning
Experiencing frequent arousals throughout the night and having trouble going back to sleep
Feeling tired and lethargic upon waking
Problems with memory or concentration
What are the different types of insomnia?
There are three main types of insomnia: chronic, acute and comorbid insomnia. Below we’ll outline each type, and some potential treatments for them.
Chronic insomnia describes sleeplessness that continues for three nights or more for upwards of three months. There are two types of chronic insomnia: primary and secondary.
Primary chronic insomnia denotes insomnia that isn’t a by-product of another psychiatric or medical disorder.iv It’s a unique disorder, and its aetiology remains largely a mystery. Secondary insomnia, on the other hand, is triggered by situations or other conditions. In this case, insomnia will be a response to emotional stress, trauma, medical issues, health problems, or lifestyle choices, such as alcohol or caffeine consumption.
Chronic insomnia causes:
Mental health issues, like anxiety and low mood
Pain or discomfort at night from long-term medical conditions
Some medications, such as antidepressants or beta-blockers
Overuse of stimulants – caffeine, illicit drugs, and nicotine
Lifestyle patterns, such as shift-work or frequently travelling across time zones
Chronic insomnia treatments:
Treating chronic insomnia should always start with addressing any underlying health conditions that may be leading to sleeplessness. If insomnia persists, then you may need to try some of the techniques outlined below.
Cognitive behavioural therapy: This therapy involves educating yourself on optimal sleeping habits, and recognising how certain behaviours and beliefs can interfere with your capacity to sleep.
Sleep restriction: This strategy involves restricting the amount of time you spend in bed to deprive you of rest so that you’re sleepy at bedtime.
Relaxation techniques: These techniques use breathing exercises, guided meditation, and yoga to help relax the body and prepare it for rest.
Alternatively, you can discover more natural insomnia remedies in our guide.
Periodically experiencing sleeplessness is called acute insomnia. This type of insomnia is usually triggered by a life event — receiving bad news, traveling, changing jobs, moving house, or financial difficulties. Typically, acute insomnia resolves when the stressor goes away.
What causes acute insomnia?
Physical or emotional discomfort
Significant life stress, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, moving house, or job loss
Environmental factors, like extreme temperatures (cold or hot), light, or noise that disrupt sleep
Some medications, such as those to treat depression, allergies, and cold may disturb sleep
Unlike chronic insomnia, acute insomnia doesn’t usually need treatment. Often, a spell of sleeplessness can be prevented and remedied by practising the sleep hygiene habits outlined below.
Stick to a healthy bedtime routine: Follow a routine to help you feel relaxed before bed – read, have a bath, or meditate. Aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Avoid napping during the day, too.
Avoid using electronic devices before bed: Your gadgets emit blue light, which inhibits the production of your sleep hormone, melatonin. Disconnect from your e-devices 90-minutes before sleeping.
Get regular exercise: Physical activity prepares the body for rest thanks to its body-heating effects. However, try not to exercise too close to bed, as it can be overly stimulating.
If sleeplessness occurs alongside another condition, it’s comorbid insomnia. Certain medical conditions and psychiatric conditions are often associated with disturbed sleep.
What causes comorbid insomnia?
Psychiatric disorders, such as substance abuse, low mood, anxiety
Medical conditions, like acid reflux, congestive heart failure, and diabetes
Chronic pain — arthritis and headaches
Neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease
Sleep disorders, like sleep apnoea and restless leg syndrome
Circadian rhythm sleep disorders — jet lag and shift work sleep disorder (SWSD)
Getting to the route cause of comorbid insomnia is often the say to treat it. However, mindfulness and relaxation techniques can be used alongside treatment to help promote sleep naturally.
Being stuck in a perpetual cycle of tiredness and insomnia can be frustrating, but with a better understanding of what is causing your sleeplessness, you will be better equipped to tackle it.
For more advice on improving your sleep hygiene, simply explore the rest of our sleep hub.
NHS UK. (2019). Insomnia. Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/insomnia
Aviva.com. (2019). Sleepless cities revealed as one in three adults suffer from insomnia. Available online: https://www.aviva.com/newsroom/news-releases/2017/10/Sleepless-cities-revealed-as-one-in-three-adults-suffer-from-insomnia
Mayo Clinic. (2019). Insomnia - Symptoms and causes. Available online: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355167
Sciencedirect.com. (2019). Primary Insomnia - an overview. ScienceDirect Topics. Available online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/primary-insomnia
Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.