As most people know, the first step towards finding a solution is to first identify the cause of the problem. Therefore, most people dealing with insomnia start with a simple question: why can’t I fall asleep?
Insomnia is kind of like having a fever.
With a fever, you know you’re sick because something is making your body temperature rise. However, the cause could be a variety of factors, such as disease or infection; having a fever is a common symptom of any number of possible medical conditions. It’s the way your body deals with illness, and a way for it to tell you that something is wrong.
Having trouble sleeping is very similar. There could be a host of factors contributing to your mind and body’s inability to sleep at night.
Everyone is different. Some people are short. Some people are tall. Some have brown hair, some have red. Some have blue eyes, brown, hazel, or green. And some people seem to have been born with insomnia.
For as long as they can remember, some people have been functioning at a higher intensity than others, constantly plagued by an inability to shut down.
The ability to fall asleep—or to stay awake for that matter—is finely regulated by distinct areas of the brain. For some, these areas have always been in the same gear, unable to completely down-regulate when night falls and others are fast asleep.
For others suffering from insomnia, there was a time when natural, deep sleep was not a problem. But then, something happened.
It may have been a life circumstance, such as a traumatic event or a loss, that triggered certain anxiety centers in the brain, or that altered parts of the brain that regulate mood and emotion. These changes may have had a secondary impact on the brain’s arousal centers, altering them to be overactive, despite our best efforts at calming them. And from then on, the problems have persisted.
Something in the brain has become fundamentally altered, a hardwiring problem if you will, and has changed how the brain operates for extended periods of time.
Matters that shouldn’t ordinarily cause concern, now do.
Events that generally wouldn’t make us feel sad, now do—in more severe manners than situations may warrant.
These anxieties, worries, and moments of sadness are tied into the brain’s arousal system, gearing it up to deal with things that may already be long gone.
Then, there are a myriad of medical issues that many face which can impact their ability to sleep. An injury that causes chronic pain stimulates pathways in the brain that are tied to our arousal systems and prevent us from getting deep, restorative sleep.
Many medications, like steroids or hypnotics, or recreational drugs such as alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and narcotics can impact our brain’s sleep/wake centers in undesirable ways. The after-effects of many drugs, like alcohol, can create physiological withdrawal states that impair our ability to fall and stay asleep throughout the night—even when not under the influence.
Many life circumstances can also alter the timing of sleep and thereby interfere with our body’s natural sleep/wake rhythms. When our internal clocks are off, nothing seems to allow sleep to occur naturally.
Shift work is an extreme example of this, but sometimes even minor variations to our lifestyles over the course of a week can interfere. Getting into and out of bed early on weekdays, and staying up late and sleeping in on weekends, is a common natural disrupter of our body’s internal clock which regulates when and how we sleep.
Many reading this may have found that one or more of the above applies to them. It’s important to remember that insomnia is often complex, as many things contribute to it, and that each case of insomnia is as unique as the individual suffering from it.
Treating your insomnia is a gradual process. You might go through different treatments before you find the option, or combination of options, that is right for you.
Getting help is the first step. Check out these questions to ask your doctor about insomnia, and start getting answers to the question, “why can’t I fall asleep?”