You should seek help if your insomnia has become a pattern, or if you often feel fatigued or unrefreshed during the day and it interferes with your daily life. Many people have brief periods of difficulty sleeping (for example, a few days after starting a new job), but if insomnia lasts longer or has become a regular occurrence, you should ask for help.
Start by calling your primary care physician or bringing up the topic of sleep at your next well visit if you have one scheduled. If your doctor is knowledgeable about sleep disorders, he or she will guide you through the next steps, which may involve an assessment and further testing, or a referral to a sleep specialist. Your doctor may also start by giving you some basic information and resources about healthy sleep habits—these behavioral tips may help certain people with insomnia—or discussing potential medical treatment options to consider. Your doctor could refer you to a psychotherapist if your sleep struggles seem connected to anxiety, depression, or a major life adjustment.
If you don’t feel satisfied after your conversation with your primary care physician, ask for a referral to a doctor who specializes in sleep medicine or consult other available resources. It’s important to find a doctor who has the proper knowledge and training to treat your insomnia.
Many cities also have sleep centers and clinics (sometimes connected to a hospital) that offer assessments, testing, and treatment. An Internet search will help you locate the nearest center.
Non-Medical (Cognitive & Behavioral) Treatments for Insomnia
There are psychological and behavioral techniques that can be helpful for treating insomnia. Relaxation training, stimulus control, sleep restriction, and cognitive behavioral therapy are some examples.
Some of these techniques can be self-taught, while for others it’s better to enlist the help of a therapist or sleep specialist.
Relaxation training, or progressive muscle relaxation, teaches the person to systematically tense and relax muscles in different areas of the body. This helps to calm the body and induce sleep. Other relaxation techniques that help many people sleep involve breathing exercises, mindfulness, meditation techniques, and guided imagery. Many people listen to audio recordings to guide them in learning these techniques. They can work to help you fall asleep and also return to sleep in the middle of the night.
Stimulus control helps to build an association between the bedroom and sleep by limiting the type of activities allowed in the bedroom. An example of stimulus control is going to bed only when you are sleepy, and getting out of bed if you’ve been awake for 20 minutes or more. This helps to break an unhealthy association between the bedroom and wakefulness. Sleep restriction involves a strict schedule of bedtimes and wake times and limits time in bed to only when a person is sleeping.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) includes behavioral changes (such as keeping a regular bedtime and wake up time, getting out of bed after being awake for 20 minutes or so, and eliminating afternoon naps) but it adds a cognitive or “thinking” component. CBT works to challenge unhealthy beliefs and fears around sleep and teach rational, positive thinking. There is a good amount of research supporting the use of CBT for insomnia. For example, in one study, patients with insomnia attended one CBT session via the internet per week for 6 weeks. After the treatment, these people had improved sleep quality.
Medical Treatments for Insomnia
There are many different types of sleep aids for insomnia, including over-the-counter (non-prescription) and prescription medications.
Determining which medication may be right for you depends on your insomnia symptoms and many different health factors. This is why it’s important to consult with a doctor before taking a sleep aid.
Major classes of prescription insomnia medications include benzodiazepine hypnotics, non-benzodiazepine hypnotics, and melatonin receptor agonists.
There are alternative medicines that may help certain people sleep. It’s important to know that these products are not required to pass through the same safety tests as medications, so their side effects and effectiveness are not as well understood.