Why Can’t I Sleep? The Main Causes and Solutions to Sleep Problems, Explained
A lack of sleep has significant repercussions on mood and health. As such, reversing sleep issues can drastically help build the foundations of a better life. But first, you have to identify what’s happening, and why.
“The worst thing in the world,” American author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “is to try to sleep and not to.” A lack of sleep, even in small amounts, has a detrimental impact, as it’s crucial for health, functioning, and happiness.
The Sleep Foundation notes that symptoms of sleep deprivation include reduced attention, slowed thinking, low mood, less rational decision-making, and poor memory. While for some a lack of sleep is a lifestyle choice, for others, a lack of sleep isn’t for lack of trying. Lying awake, unable to doze off, can feel like the worst thing in the world.
Being aware of the negative impacts of a lack of sleep doesn’t do much to help the situation. The paradox of sleep problems is that the more you try to force yourself, the more awake you become.
So, instead of focusing on symptoms, it’s best to start looking for solutions. What causes sleep problems, or sleep disorders? And how can you improve your quality of sleep?
Why Can’t You Sleep?
Sleep problems are incredibly common. No one is immune from occasional spells of difficulty. Lifestyle changes, stress, anxiety, depression, diet, exercise, illness and your environment can all contribute to disrupted sleep. Common sleep problems include difficulty falling asleep, waking frequently throughout the night, waking up too early, and struggling to fall back asleep.
If you’re occasionally affected, try not to worry too much. A few basic changes can have a positive influence. Practice having a regular wind-down routine, or try various relaxation techniques, in order to prime yourself for sleep. Make sure your environment is made for relaxation. And avoid screens (that includes your mobile, laptop, or TV), caffeine, and alcohol, an hour or so before you plan to hit the pillow.
When Trouble Sleeping Is a Sleep Disorder
According to the UK’s National Health Services, most people who have trouble sleeping will find the issue eases within a month. If this goes on for longer, however, it could be a sign of insomnia, a common sleep disorder affecting up to 30 percent of the population in America alone. Sleep disorders vary widely — there are over 100 different classifications of disorder falling into four main groups:
- Problem falling asleep and staying asleep,
- Problem staying awake,
- Problems keeping a regular sleep schedule,
- Unusual behavior during sleep.
In addition to insomnia, common sleep disorders include:
- Sleep apnea: a condition where breathing is disrupted during sleep, which can become a serious health concern.
- Narcolepsy: excessive daytime tiredness, often causing people to fall asleep suddenly.
- Restless leg syndrome (RLS): feelings of discomfort, such as tingling or twitching, in the legs, along with an urge to move. This causes a delayed sleep phase or trouble falling asleep.
- Parasomnia: the catch-all term for disruptive behavior before or during sleep, including sleepwalking and night terrors.
Although there are habits and hacks you can apply to improve your sleep, if you suspect you have a sleep disorder, your best option is to talk to a professional, especially if your lack of sleep is having a negative impact on your life.
What Causes Sleep Disorders?
There is no single cause for a sleep disorder. Viewed holistically, sleep disorders can be the result of a combination of different factors, from genetics, to lifestyle, work patterns or quality of your sleeping environment. Occasionally, a sleep disorder signals an underlying issue, such as heart disease, hyperthyroidism, or a circadian rhythm disorder (such as delayed sleep phase syndrome), which prevents the most rejuvenating form of deep sleep.
There are various risk factors that can heighten the risk of a sleep disorder, such as:
- People aged 60 or over may have health and lifestyle changes, including an increased likelihood of medication; these may affect the quality of sleep.
- Emotional or physical stress.
- Working night shifts or regularly traveling through different time zones.
- Mental or physical health problems, including chronic pain.
The charity Mind notes that “there’s a close relationship between sleep and mental health. Living with a mental health problem can affect how well you sleep, and poor sleep can have a negative impact on your mental health.” This creates a vicious cycle. For example, if you have anxiety, it’s normal to stay awake worrying, unable to relax enough to fall asleep. Waking up in the morning feeling tired and unrefreshed can then cause the anxiety to heighten.
How to Overcome Sleep Problems
If in doubt, talk to a professional to ease anxiety and explore the root cause of your sleep issues. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome will benefit from the guidance of a medical professional. It’s a win-win: knowing there are no underlying causes may settle your mind, whereas identifying the root cause will start the road to recovery. For regular sleep problems, there are steps you can take for significant improvement.
Start with a regular sleep schedule. Try to go to sleep, and wake up, at a similar time each night. Part of this process is learning to understand what rhythm suits you best, and honoring that. As the cliche goes, some people are night owls, others early birds. Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep or goes to sleep at the same time. Feel your energy levels and listen to your body.
If you are lying awake at night, don’t try to force sleep’s arrival. Consider getting out of bed for a few moments, and meditate or read. To avoid the vicious cycle, make sure to journal all your concerns about your lack of sleep, and other thoughts — research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is highly effective for treating sleep disorders, highlighting how thoughts affect sleep quality. Relaxation techniques, from visualizations to body scans, are effective, too.
In addition, work with your body, as well as your mind. Find an exercise schedule that works for you, such as cardio or weight training. Intense exercise too close to bedtime can actually have the opposite effect and lead to exercise-induced insomnia, which is common in athletes. So exercise earlier in the day, or if you want to exercise closer to bedtime, try something like yoga or gentle stretching.
Your sleep hygiene is a strong reflection of other areas of your life, so approach the problem with as wide a perspective as you can. How are your relationships? Your work? Your finances? Are there any worries or concerns you’re not addressing? How well are you treating your body, in terms of diet, exercise, and rest?
Questioning why can’t I sleep is usually a doorway into a wider exploration of contributing factors. Sleep is essential to thrive and be as happy as you can be. Sometimes lack of sleep is the issue, which affects other areas of your life. Sometimes other areas of your life are the issue, which affects your sleep.
Be compassionate as you explore and understand, and trust that the above steps will get you moving in the right direction. Before you know it, you’ll once again be enjoying the land of dreams. And when you do struggle to fall asleep, it’ll be a minor annoyance, far from the worst thing in the world.