Is insomnia the same as difficultly sleeping? Insomnia symptoms explained
‘Insomnia’ derives from the Latin ‘in’ (no) and ‘somnus’ (sleep). It’s a chronic condition characterised by difficulty falling or staying asleep, prolonged periods of wakefulness, or rising too early and struggling to fall back to sleep1. Insomnia is an extremely pervasive sleep disorder, affecting one in three adults in the UK2.
Living with insomnia can be isolating and debilitating, especially since it almost always has bidirectional relationships with mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression.
Sometimes, however, it can be hard to identify whether sleep issues are chronic insomnia or just a temporary condition. Here, we aim to differentiate between the two.
What’s the difference between short-term and chronic insomnia?
To determine if you have short-term or chronic insomnia, you need to reference your calendar and calculate how many nights you’ve had trouble sleeping.
Short-term insomnia – also known as acute insomnia – typically lasts a few days and often subsides naturally. It’s usually connected to environmental changes or significant life events. Once the stressor in question eases, sleep generally improves. But if the stressor remains unaddressed, short-term insomnia may develop into a chronic condition that will require more intervention.
Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, persists for much longer – at least three nights a week for three months or more – and often interferes with daily functioning and overall wellbeing.
Like acute insomnia, chronic insomnia can be associated with stress and life changes. Nevertheless, it can also be related to poor sleep hygiene, irregular sleeping patterns, mental health conditions, underlying physical or neurological problems, certain sleep disorders, some medications, or a loud bed partner.
Chronic insomnia can be a debilitating sleep disorder and signals that you need to change your lifestyle and get the necessary support to improve your sleep quantity and quality.
Learn more about the different types of insomnia and their causes here.
What are the symptoms of insomnia?
For years, short-term (acute) and chronic insomnia have been viewed as variations of the same disorder, only differentiated in terms of symptom severity (days/weeks versus months). Despite having an adequate sleep opportunity window, you may experience these symptoms if you have insomnia – be it short-term or chronic:3
Difficulty falling asleep at night (also known as sleep-onset insomnia)
Prolonged periods of wakefulness (also known as sleep maintenance insomnia)
Waking up too early and struggling to get back to sleep
Having un-refreshed sleep
Insomnia-impacted sleep often results in one or more of the following daytime impairments4.
Excessive daytime malaise and fatigue
Difficulty paying attention, focusing or recalling information
Mood disturbances, like anxiety, depression, or irritability
On-going worries about sleep
Increased clumsiness, errors or accidents
Higher rates of work absenteeism
Diminished job performance
Decreased quality of life
What are the causes of short-term insomnia?
Historically, short-term insomnia – or acute insomnia – has also been referred to as stress-related insomnia or adjustment insomnia since an external stressor or stressors usually trigger it5. A stressor may involve changes in the sleeping environment, stress – perhaps caused by job problems, the loss of a loved one, divorce, or relationship change – illness, pain, or surgery, the use/withdrawal of illegal drugs, alcohol, stimulants (caffeine), or certain medications.
Interestingly, women are more likely to develop short-term insomnia than men6. Perhaps this is due to the hormonal fluctuations associated with menstruation and perimenopause7. Short-term insomnia also commonly arises in pregnancy8.
How long is short-term insomnia?
In essence, short-term insomnia is a briefer form of chronic insomnia, typically lasting around three months or less. More often than not, the symptoms of short-term insomnia improve organically or as a person learns to manage and cope with the stressful incident that led to sleep troubles in the first place. Nonetheless, if the underlying stressor persists, short-term insomnia may become chronic insomnia.
In the meantime, you can always try these natural remedies to help you fall asleep if you’re dealing with short-term insomnia.
Most people will experience short-term insomnia at some point in their life. Fortunately, healthy sleep patterns usually resume once stressful events or life changes de-escalate. If, however, you’ve been struggling with sleep disturbances for upwards of three months, it may signal that you have a chronic condition and need to change certain aspects of your lifestyle, sleep hygiene, or get further support from your GP.
For even more advice on achieving a restful night’s sleep, visit our dedicated sleep hub.
- Saddichha S. (2010). Diagnosis and treatment of chronic insomnia. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, 13(2), 94–102.
- 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
- Sateia MJ, Doghramji K, Hauri PJ, Morin CM. (2000) Evaluation of chronic insomnia. An American Academy of Sleep Medicine review. Sleep. 15; 23(2): 243-308.
- Roth T. (2007). Insomnia: definition, prevalence, etiology, and consequences. Journal of clinical sleep medicine: JCSM: official publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 3(5 Suppl), S7–S10.
- NIH State of the Science Conference statement on Manifestations and Management of Chronic Insomnia in Adults statement. (2005) J Clin Sleep Med. 1(4): 412-21; Morin CM, Bélanger L, LeBlanc M, Ivers H, Savard J, Espie CA, Mérette C, Baillargeon L, Grégoire JP,. (2009) The natural history of insomnia: a population-based 3-year longitudinal study. Arch Intern Med. 169(5): 447-53.
- Zhang B, Wing YK. (2006) Sex differences in insomnia: a meta-analysis. Sleep. 29(1): 85-93.
- Baker FC, Sassoon SA, Kahan T, Palaniappan L, Nicholas CL, Trinder J, Colrain IM. (2012) Perceived poor sleep quality in the absence of polysomnographic sleep disturbance in women with severe premenstrual syndrome. J Sleep Res. 21(5): 535-45; Baker, F. C., de Zambotti, M., Colrain, I. M., & Bei, B. (2018). Sleep problems during the menopausal transition: prevalence, impact, and management challenges. Nature and science of sleep, 10, 73–9.
- Silvestri R, Aricò I. (2019) Sleep disorders in pregnancy. Sleep Sci. 12(3): 232-239.
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.