Having trouble falling asleep at night can be frustrating and debilitating, and if this keeps happening to you, it's common to wonder if it's a sign of a bigger problem. However, not all sleep issues are insomnia, and there are a number of differences between temporarily not sleeping well and short-term insomnia. Occasional sleeplessness happens to most of us for a variety of reasons, but this can actually differ from insomnia, which is a more serious sleep disorder.
"Insomnia consists of difficulty falling asleep, having frequent or prolonged awakenings, or a final morning awakening that is earlier than desired," Dr. Teofilo Lee-Chiong, M.D., sleep expert, professor at National Jewish Health, and Chief Medical Liaison at Philips, tells Bustle. "[People] with insomnia often describe their sleep as short and inadequate, light and easily disrupted, of poor quality, or unsatisfactory. Many common conditions are associated with disrupted sleep and, thus, can be easily mistaken for an insomnia disorder."
It is important to recognize that the sleep disturbance in insomnia is repetitive, occurs despite having an adequate opportunity, condition and time to do sleep, and that it leads to impaired daytime functioning, says Dr. Lee-Chiong. These features differentiate a person with an insomnia disorder from one who is not sleeping well due to other causes. Insomnia can be chronic or short-term, depending on specific factors in your life.
Here are five key differences between not sleeping well and short-term insomnia, according to experts.
1Poor Sleep Hygiene
"Many people struggle with sleep, but they don’t necessarily have insomnia," says Dr. Lee-Chiong. "A major contributor to poor sleep is bad sleep hygiene. For example, it’s widely known that the blue light from televisions, phone screens, and computers affects sleep." If you're using electronics before bed, or engaging in other poor sleep hygiene habits such as leaving a light on, keeping the room too warm, or switching up your bedtime often, it's likely not insomnia.
2Certain Triggers Cause Your Poor Sleep
If you can pinpoint triggers such as diet, medications, or other factors disturbing your sleep, you probably aren't suffering from insomnia. Instead, poor sleep quality is likely to blame. "An example of insufficient quality would be something routinely disrupting your sleep architecture at night such as sleep apnea (snoring, restrictions in breathing), taking sleeping medications, or drinking alcohol or caffeine too close to bedtime," psychologist and sleep doctor Dr. Daniel Blum tells Bustle.
3Duration Of Symptoms
"I define insomnia by the 'Rule of 3’s,'" Dr. Michael Breus, board-certified sleep expert and co-creator of the Princess Cruises Luxury Bed, tells Bustle. "If it takes more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, a person wakes more than three times a night (for more than a total of 30 min), more than 3 times a week, for more than 3 weeks, this is insomnia." Sleep disturbances that are more temporary — or caused by other factors such as poor sleep hygiene or caffeine — are not typically classified as insomnia.
4How Long You Spend In Bed
Those with insomnia typically carve enough time out for sleep, but they aren't able to fall asleep or stay asleep during this window. "For example, you can spend 10 hours in bed every night, but you only get six hours of sleep," says Dr. Blum. Someone who doesn't sleep well, on the other hand, might only have six hours to spend in bed every night, but sleeps for five hours and 50 mins. This could be caused by getting in bed too late or disturbances from aforementioned triggers, says Dr. Blum.
The presence of stressors can also determine whether or not what you are experiencing is insomnia. "Stress of any variety (physical, psychological, relational, occupational, economic) is often what triggers a bout of insomnia," says Dr. Blum. "The night before a big test or project deadline often stirs up stressful thoughts which can trigger our cortisol and keep us alert longer than we would like. Once that temporary stress has resolved, we typically are able to return to our regular sleep habits. However, if the stressor continues for a while, our bodies can become accustomed to spending larger chunks of time awake in bed, which is a classic way that insomnia develops."
Occasional sleeplessness is often no cause for worry. But if you feel that it is persisting, you may be experiencing insomnia. Speaking to a doctor or sleep specialist may be your best bet in getting a better night's sleep.