The 5 Biggest Early Warning Signs You Have Insomnia

Experts explain how to tell the difference between the disorder and just trouble sleeping. Here's what to know.
How do you know if your sleepless nights are insomnia or just a phase? Experts break down the difference.
Maria Korneeva via Getty Images
How do you know if your sleepless nights are insomnia or just a phase? Experts break down the difference.

It’s not uncommon to occasionally have a hard time falling or staying asleep. However, for those people who seem to never be able to sleep, it might be an indicator of a more serious condition like insomnia.

“Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that is often characterised by difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, waking up too early, and/or non-restorative/poor quality sleep,” said Sarah Silverman, a holistic sleep expert and behavioural sleep medicine specialist.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 30%-35% of adults have brief symptoms of insomnia, 15%-20% have acute or adjustment insomnia lasting less than three months, and 10% have chronic insomnia, which occurs at least three nights a week for at least three months.

We spoke with sleep experts about the biggest early warning signs of insomnia, the associated risks and the options for treatment.

You Have Difficulty Falling Asleep

It should typically take you 15-20 minutes to fall asleep if you’re following a consistent sleep routine, said Dr. Peter Polos, a sleep medicine specialist and expert for the company Sleep Number.

If you find that it’s taking you longer than that to fall asleep, it could be an early sign of insomnia or another sleep disorder.

One of the leading causes of insomnia is hyperarousal, which essentially means having increased activity within the nervous system, Silverman explained. “Being in a state of hyperarousal often disrupts falling and/or staying asleep,” she said. “Hyperarousal can be mental, physical, or both, as it’s experienced differently on an individual basis.”

Kristen Casey, a clinical psychologist and insomnia specialist, said it’s important to note that those with acute insomnia (which lasts less than three months) can often manage their symptoms with over-the-counter medications or have it resolve naturally depending on the root cause.

You Have Trouble Staying Asleep

People tend to have at least two awakenings overnight, which can vary depending on medical conditions, mental health and age, Casey said. Whether that’s to use the bathroom, go on your phone, or spend some time overthinking, not being able to stay asleep for a prolonged period of time can be a warning sign of insomnia.

“Waking up throughout the night can disrupt important sleep stages that are critical to brain development and overall health,” Polos said.

You Experience Daytime Sleepiness

While you might have been in bed for eight hours, that does not mean you actually slept that entire time. One of the most common warning signs of insomnia is daytime sleepiness, and it goes overlooked by many people.

When you’re not getting enough quality sleep, your circadian rhythm (our body’s internal clock) will be off track,” Polos said. “This causes us to feel tired, sluggish, and not as productive throughout the day.”

You Have Anxiety About Sleep

For a lot of people, sleep is one part of their day they are actually looking forward to. However, for those who might have insomnia, bedtime can be a source of stress and anxiety.

“Sometimes people start to worry about their sleep and if they will wake up throughout the night,” Casey said. “This can be a warning sign for insomnia because sometimes people struggle with hyperarousal, meaning increased anxiety or thinking right before bed, which keeps them up at night.”

You Are More Irritable And Have Difficulty Concentrating

While not sleeping in itself can be frustrating, it can lead to frustration throughout the day too. “The consequences of sleep deprivation can become cumulative over time,” Polos said. “During the day, you may find it difficult to focus and perform usual tasks and might feel frustrated and irritated because of the lack of sleep.”

Insomnia can take a toll on your day-to-day life.
Longhua Liao via Getty Images
Insomnia can take a toll on your day-to-day life.

What Are The Risks Of Untreated Insomnia?

Those who suffer from insomnia or let the condition go untreated can face a number of health risks.

Insomnia can lead to poor concentration or attention issues during the day, poor mood or more irritability, decreased motivation, and low energy or increased daytime fatigue, Silverman said.

“Most significantly, insomnia can increase the likelihood of developing anxiety and depression and insomnia can also make pre-existing anxiety and depression worse,” she added.

When Is It Time To See A Doctor?

Silverman recommended using the 30-30-3 rule as a guide for when it may be time to see a doctor about insomnia. The 30-30-3 rule involves asking these three questions:

  1. Does it take you 30 minutes or longer to fall asleep?
  2. Are you awake for more than 30 minutes during the night?
  3. Are both of the above happening at least three nights a week?

If you meet the 30-30-3 rule, you may have insomnia, and it may be a good time to see your doctor or seek out a sleep specialist to discuss your treatment options.