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How to Break the Insomnia Cycle in Young Adults

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by Dr. Reut Gruber
Aug 18 • 4 min read
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Everyone experiences bad nights here and there. Insomnia develops when a person has difficulty falling or staying asleep, and often wakes up too early several times each week, despite having enough time to rest.

People with insomnia don’t just struggle to sleep— they also suffer during the day. In fact, daytime challenges are an inseparable part of insomnia. Performance at work or school frequently declines because people with insomnia have difficulty paying attention and remembering details. They’re also more likely to make mistakes. This means being more prone to having accidents, including car crashes, which puts their safety— and that of others— at risk.

People with insomnia also tend to feel fatigued, ill, moody, irritable, over-reactive, low-energy, or unmotivated. These negative effects to mood challenges relationships with friends, children, spouses and co-workers.

Insomnia in Young Adults

Risk factors for insomnia include having a family history of sleep problems, being more easily roused from sleep, being a “night owl” who doesn’t have a regular wake-up time, doing shift work, having a history of childhood trauma, or suffering from depression, anxiety, or chronic pain.

One-third to two-thirds of young adults report occasional short-term insomnia, and 19% and 11% of young women and men, respectively, suffer from chronic insomnia.

People with insomnia are in a state of nonstop hyperarousal. One person described insomnia as feeling like “a highway where cars are always moving”. Insomnia causes the overactive brain and body to work continuously. Even daily stressors can trigger exaggerated reactions.

How Does Insomnia Begin?

Stress is a major trigger of insomnia. Major life events like divorce, the death of a spouse or close family member, or the loss of a job, are likely to cause sleeplessness in most people, even if they aren’t at risk for insomnia.

In individuals who are at high risk for insomnia, sleeplessness can be triggered by less acute stressors. Adjusting to a new home, school, or job, anticipating a test or project deadline, or experiencing conflict with a family member, co-worker, or friend can all keep the mind active at night and make it difficult for people to fall or stay asleep.

What Makes Short-Term Insomnia Become Chronic?

Lying awake in bed. Yearning for rest, sleepless people often stay in bed for extended periods of time in an effort to get more sleep. They toss and turn and worry about falling asleep and all they need to do the next day. This makes their brains associate the bed and bedroom with anxiety, and alertness rather than with the drowsiness needed for sleep.

Once this association has been created, going to bed further increases their arousal, making it ever more difficult for them to fall asleep. This is how short-term sleeplessness can develop into chronic insomnia.

Napping. Taking naps during the day feels natural when we aren’t getting enough sleep at night; it’s difficult to resist the urge to get some rest when we’re tired. Most people with insomnia also have difficulty falling asleep during the day. When they do manage to doze off for a nap, this weakens their “sleep pressure” at bedtime, ultimately prolonging sleeplessness.

Worrying about sleep. It’s understandable that exhaustion and sleeplessness will create worry. Paradoxically, worry and anxiety about sleeplessness result in higher cognitive and physiological arousal, perpetuating short-term insomnia instead of fixing it.

These natural reactions to sleeplessness are some of the main ways in which it grows into chronic insomnia.

How Can We Break the Insomnia Cycle?

Nip it in the bud. Major disruptive life events will cause most people to lose sleep, and it’s impossible to make these events non-stressful. However, reducing additional stress caused by sleeplessness can help people to better cope with these events and prevent chronic insomnia.

Calm the mind. Incorporate stress-reducing strategies like mindfulness meditation, deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation into your nighttime routine. Consult with a mental health specialist to get support while coping with a stressful situation.

Consider medication. If the bout of insomnia is acute, consider temporarily using a sedative. This medication should be prescribed for only 2-4 weeks and combined with good sleep hygiene training and emotional support.

Seek evidence-based treatment. For longer-term sleep challenges like chronic insomnia, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) can be helpful. This intervention uses multiple science-based strategies to address common thoughts and behaviors that interfere with optimal sleep and perpetuate insomnia. If CBT-I alone isn’t effective, medication may be considered as an added treatment.

Tips & Tricks to Improve Your Sleep

Daytime Behavior
  • Exercise regularly, but not within 3 hours of bedtime.
  • Avoid using nicotine or consuming alcohol or caffeine after lunchtime.
  • Avoid napping.
  • Use your bed only for sleep. Avoid using it to do your schoolwork, watch movies, or eat.
Bedtime Behavior
  • Try to ensure you aren’t too hungry or full.
  • Avoid discussing emotional or upsetting issues.
  • Avoid stimulating activities, like watching an interesting movie or playing video games.
  • Decrease your exposure to both bright screen light and stimulating content. Avoid scrolling (especially “doom scrolling” through bad news) on your devices.
  • Take a warm shower or bath before bed. This can help you de-stress and fall asleep faster.
  • Follow a bedtime routine. Incorporate stress-reducing strategies like mindfulness meditation, deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
Optimize Your Bedroom for Sleep
  • Create a calming bedroom environment by removing any object associated with ongoing stress.
  • Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet and a comfortable temperature.
Set Your Internal Clock
  • Go to sleep at the same time every night, including weekends.
  • Wake up at the same time each morning, even on weekends.
  • Expose yourself to bright light right after you wake up. Go outside, open the blinds or turn on the lights to help your “sleep clock” function properly.

Having Trouble Sleeping?

If you aren’t asleep within 15-20 minutes of going to bed, get up, go to another room, and do a quiet activity (e.g., reading or listening to calming music) until you feel tired enough to try sleeping again. If you still have trouble sleeping, make sure to consult a licensed health professional.

Clinical psychologists can provide helpful sleep therapy. However, they must be fully licensed for independent practice and have documentation of their training. You can find certified CBT Diplomates at the Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies. For more information, see the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine’s position statement.

Who Is (and Isn’t) Qualified to Help Diagnose and Treat Sleep Disorders?

Various health care providers can help you address a sleep problem, including:

  • Sleep physicians are medical doctors trained in sleep medicine and are licensed to practice by a medical board.
  • Family physicians, general physicians, pediatricians, and psychiatrists may or may not have specialized training related to sleep. If needed, they can assist or refer you to a specialist. Licensure for this practice is provided by a medical board.
  • Some (but not all) clinical psychologists are mental health experts with special expertise in behavioral interventions for sleep disorders. They must be fully licensed for autonomous practice and should have documentation of specialized training to be considered a sleep expert.

Understanding the ways in which insomnia develops in young adults and taking the appropriate measures to prevent and treat it can help us break this negative cycle once and for all.

A word of warning: Certifications from institutes or organizations that aren’t part of a professional society usually aren’t regulated. Some people who offer their services for evaluation or treatment of sleep disorders, like “sleep coaches” or “consultants”, may not hold a professional license to practice as a health care provider. For more information, please visit the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine’s position statement.

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