Causes 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 of our ability to sleep may be quickly forgotten--once it has passed. In the midst of it, however, it may be important to differentiate acute insomnia from more chronic problems. Short-term insomnia may have various causes, and one of the most important is stress. What are some of the potential causes of short-term insomnia? Can insomnia be linked to our travel or work schedules?

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To better understand the relationship between insomnia and stress, travel, and our work schedule, let’s review an excerpt from UpToDate – a trusted electronic medical reference used by healthcare providers and patients alike. Then, continue reading about what this information may mean for you.

"Short-term insomnia lasts three months or less and is usually caused by stressors. Possible stressors include the following:

  • Changes in the sleeping environment (temperature, light, noise)
  • Stress, such as the loss of a loved one, divorce, or job loss
  • Recent illness, surgery, or sources of 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

"Short-term insomnia often resolves when the stressor resolves.

"Traveling across time zones is another common cause of short-term insomnia, known as jet lag. Jet lag may occur regardless of the direction of travel, although it is most pronounced when traveling west to east. Most people require several days to adjust their sleep pattern to the new time zone.

"Insomnia is common in individuals who work the night shift (ie, third shift). You may be sleepy at work and while driving home in the morning, but have difficulty staying asleep past noon. The sleep problems can be resolved by transferring from the night shift or by sleeping at the same time every day for several weeks."

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 3 months. Chronic insomnia requires a different assessment and possible treatment. As the causes are often distinctive, acute and chronic insomnia are considered to be separate conditions.

As described above, the most common cause of acute or short-term insomnia is stress. The origin of this stress can be as varied as you can imagine. Major changes in your life such as the death of close family or friends, relationship discord, or divorce are often-cited triggers of insomnia. Problems at work (or, conversely, unemployment) and financial distress may also keep you up at night.

In addition, medical problems or the use of medications may disrupt your sleep. Any source of pain may disrupt your sleep. Various illnesses, especially those that affect your breathing, may also be bothersome. There are medications that can also induce insomnia. Steroids are notorious for this side effect. Even commonplace stimulants that contain caffeine such as coffee, tea, and chocolate may delay or disrupt our sleep.

One of the most important complements to our ability to our ability to sleep is our sleep environment. 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. If we change our sleep environment, including the inclusion or exclusion of a bed partner, our sleep may change, too.

Another common trigger of acute insomnia relates to our environment and is linked to long-distance travel. 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 slowing changing your sleep schedule, using a light box for phototherapy, or taking a small dose of melatonin.

Finally, 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.

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 difficulty sleeping may also resolve. In some settings, it is simply a matter of the passage of time. In the cases of jet lag and shift work, the cause is clear. Though with jet lag you will gradually adapt to your new time zone after traveling, a mismatched circadian pattern in shift work may require changing your job schedule. This may not always prove to be possible, so maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule may be your second-best option.

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 if possible it is best to address these difficulties before they become a chronic issue.

Want to learn more? See UpToDate's topic, "Insomnia," for additional in-depth medical information.

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