The First 48 Hours: Insomnia

Patient Expert

You've been diagnosed with insomnia - what now? Expert Patient Florence Cardinal explains what you need to know - and do - after your diagnosis.

After months of long, sleepless nights and sluggish, unproductive days, you've finally made it to the doctor to learn that your suspicions are confirmed: you've been suffering from insomnia.

As someone who's been diagnosed with a sleep disorder, I know that a medical diagnosis is never fun. On the bright side, however, you can relax knowing that you have an official name for the problem and you can move forward with treatment to get your life back on track.

Below you'll find a guide to what you need to know about insomnia immediately after diagnosis.

****Insomnia: The Basics

There are three main types of insomnia: transient, short-term, and chronic.

TRANSIENT INSOMNIA Transient insomnia lasts only a night or two. It's usually caused by some outside influence - sleeping in a strange bed or stress about that big presentation you have to make in the morning, for example. Even positive anticipation, such as looking forward to a big vacation, can cause transient insomnia. A perfect example is the problem children have getting to sleep on Christmas Eve.

SHORT-TERM INSOMNIA Short-term insomnia can last from a few days to a few weeks. Stress or poor sleep habits can bring this on, as can health, business or relationship issues. To solve this problem, taking steps to get rid of the stress can be very helpful.

CHRONIC INSOMNIA Chronic insomnia can last for years and causes excessive daytime sleepiness, poor concentration, memory loss and irritability. It can manifest as early as childhood. The resultant loss of sleep often causes additional health problems.

If your condition is bad enough to warrant a visit to your physician, chances are you have chronic insomnia, the type that keeps you awake night after night, week after week, sometimes for years.

Insomnia can disrupt sleep in different ways for different people or even can vary for one person over time. Some people find it difficult to fall asleep when first going to bed, and may toss and turn for hours before dropping off. Others fall asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillow, but three or four hours later they are wide awake again, unable to go back to sleep. A third person may fall asleep easily, but wake up far too early in the morning, unable to drop off again. Be sure to let your doctor know which is the most common for you. It might help determine what medication she prescribes.

Insomnia causes sleep deprivation and lack of sleep can lead to all sorts of problems, both mental and physical. Your thinking becomes fuzzy, you are unable to concentrate and you have lapses in memory.

Prolonged insomnia and the resultant sleep deprivation can lead to depression and other serious mental problems.

Physically, lack of sleep weakens the immune system, opening the door to all sorts of disorders and diseases.

Causes of Chronic Insomnia

Stress is a major cause of chronic insomnia, but often insomnia is a symptom rather than a stand-alone disorder. Something else, another condition or a disease, could be the true cultprit. One of the first things you and your doctor will need to determine is why you aren't sleeping.

You can find more information about the causes of insomnia in this helpful guide.

Prescription Drugs for Insomnia


Following your diagnosis, your doctor may have given you a prescription for a sleep medication. There are many medications on the market. Unfortunately, most of them have some bad side effects. Be sure to ask your doctor or your pharmacist what to expect while taking the prescribed drug. Also, remember that most of these drugs are not addictive, but may be habit forming.

Learn more about Nonprescription and Prescription Drugs

If you're interested, the government holds clinical trials dealing with new methods and new medications. You might benefit by being on the cutting edge of recent research. You can find a list of ongoing trials here.

Learning Good Sleeping Habits

Medication is not your only weapon against insomnia. You can start by practicing good sleep hygiene. Try to keep to a regular daily schedule, not only for going to bed and getting up, but also for meals. Establish a bedtime ritual, tasks that you perform every night to tell your mind and body that it's time to wind down and relax. This could include a warm bath, meditation or prayer, a glass of warm milk or an hour spent reading a good book.

Avoid eating a heavy meal too close to bedtime. Bloating, gas and heartburn can disturb your sleep. Avoid caffeine. It's a stimulant, which is why we drink it in the morning to wake us up and get us going. That's not the effect we want to have at bedtime. Coffee is one source of caffeine, but there are others including chocolate, many colas and some over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it can disrupt your rest later in the night. And remember, smoking can cause sleep problems. Not only can smoker's cough and a dry, raspy throat keep you awake, but nicotine is a stimulant and can have an effect similar to that of caffeine.

Your Bedroom

_**_Make your bedroom a haven for sleep, not too warm, nor too cold. Keep outside intrusions to a minimum. Shades on the window will shut out light. If noise disturbs you, mask it with music or use earplugs. Use the bedroom only for sleeping and sex. Keep televisions and computers in another room.

Find more Suggestions for healthy sleep habits.

Lulling Yourself to Sleep

In addition to keeping a steady schedule and protecting the sanctity of your bedroom, many people find alternative methods of lulling yourself to sleep helpful. Meditation works for some people. Others listen to soft music. I like the classics with a background of nature sounds - a rippling brook, birds singing, the wind rustling the leaves.

Mild exercise, including deep breathing and some of the slow yoga stretches, helps the body relax. Do more strenuous exercising earlier in the day as it tends to be stimulating.

Get Support

Don't try to deal with insomnia alone. Let friends and family know that you've been diagnosed. Some members of your family may not understand the importance of sleep so you'll want to explain, as best you can, what you are going through.

If insomnia affects your performance at work, you might want to talk to your employer. You may need to reduce your hours until you get the problem under control and become accustomed to a new medication. Assure your employer that you have sought help and are doing your utmost to treat and prevent your insomnia.

Remember That You Are Not Alone

Insomnia is one of the most common disorders of the modern world. Find others who suffer from this disorder. A good place to look for other insomniacs is in the SharePosts and Message Boards. Another excellent online resource is the National Sleep Foundation, and you can find more resources listed here.

A final note - Be sure to watch Health Central's excellent video on avoiding insomnia.

Be well!