Causes and Risk Factors of Short-Term Insomnia

Stress, jet lag, and shift work may disrupt your sleep.

Trouble sleeping may come and go throughout your life. A temporary disruption in your ability to sleep may be quickly forgotten once it has passed. In the midst of it, however, acute insomnia or short-term insomnia may have various causes, and one of the most important is stress.

A woman turns off her alarm clock
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The causes of short-term insomnia are important to recognize because, in many cases, they can be addressed. By alleviating the underlying stress or trigger, the sleep issues may also resolve. In some cases, time alone will solve the problem.

Read on to learn more about the causes of short-term insomnia.

Common Causes

By definition, acute or short-term insomnia lasts three months or less. The most common cause of acute insomnia is stress. The origins of this stress may be as varied as you can imagine. The most common stressors include:

  • Changes in your sleep environment (temperature, light, noise)
  • Major life changes, such as loss of close family or friends, divorce, or job loss
  • Problems at work and financial distress
  • Medical causes, such as a recent illness (especially those that affect breathing), surgery, or conditions that cause pain
  • Use or withdrawal from stimulants (caffeine), certain medications (theophylline, beta blockers, steroids, thyroid replacement, and asthma inhalers), illegal drugs (cocaine and methamphetamine), or alcohol


It is key to recognize that difficulty falling or staying asleep (or sleep that is simply not refreshing) becomes a chronic issue when it lasts for longer than three months. Long-term or chronic insomnia requires a different assessment and treatment. As they tend to have different causes, acute and chronic insomnia are considered to be separate conditions.

Lifestyle Risk Factors

There are certain habits and living conditions that can disrupt a normal sleep cycle and trigger insomnia.

Sleep Environment

Your sleep environment is one of the most important factors in getting a good night's sleep. This space should be quiet, cool, and comfortable. It should be free of disruption and distraction. We should ideally keep our bedroom empty of televisions, telephones, and pets. Whenever we change our sleep environment our sleep may change, too.

Jet Lag

When we travel a great distance rather quickly, as occurs with airplane travel, we are subject to jet lag. This condition results when our internal biological clock is not aligned to the patterns of light and dark in our new environment. This disrupts our circadian rhythm, mismatching the timing of our sleep to the new time zone.

There are effective treatments for this condition, including planning ahead and slowly changing your sleep schedule, using a light box for phototherapy, or taking a small dose of melatonin.

Shift Work

It is increasingly common to have our sleep disrupted by the requirements of our work schedule, especially in shift work. Many careers involve working non-traditional shifts, including during the evening hours or overnight.

These "graveyard shifts" can take a toll. Not only do workers not function as well when they work at a time when they should be sleeping, but they also cannot sleep as well when they should be awake.

Most workers end up sleeping less than they normally would if they were to sleep at night. This may lead to numerous problems related to sleep deprivation, including errors, accidents, and other side effects. One way this sleep problem can be resolved is by transferring from the night shift, or, if that's not possible, by making sure to sleep at a consistent time every day for several weeks.


Caffeine is a natural substance that is found in many drinks, such as coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks. Caffeine is a stimulant and promotes alertness, making it an ingredient that has both positive and negative effects.

On the positive side, caffeine can enhance your mental performance, reaction time, and mood. However, because it is a stimulant, it can make it more difficult to sleep well, especially if consumed close to your bedtime.

One way to resolve the negative effects of caffeine on a good night's sleep is to avoid consuming caffeine late in the day or close to your bedtime. Another strategy is to limit the amount of caffeine consumed in a day.

A Word From Verywell

No matter the cause, the consequences of short-term insomnia may be serious, so it is worth taking the time to carefully consider your situation and what you might be able to do about it. You deserve to get the rest that you need, and it is best to address these difficulties before they become a chronic issue.

Not being able to sleep occasionally is usually not a health concern, but if you find yourself trying to cope with insomnia on a regular basis, it may be time to see your doctor.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Bonnet MH, Ararnd DL. Insomnia. UpToDate. 

  3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Insomnia.

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By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.