17/08/2016 12:20 PM AEST | Updated 17/08/2016 12:24 PM AEST

How To Tell If Insomnia Is More Than Just A Bad Night's Sleep

Worrying about it just makes it worse.

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Sleeping difficulties are more common in women than men in Australia.

When it comes to the concept of sleep, people tend to fall into one of two camps: either they are partial to it or they long for the time they are partial to it.

If the latter sounds familiar it's likely you've tried numerous things to achieve a good night's kip -- and been met with a bunch of frustration along the way -- which experts agree can compound the problem further.

Dr Delwyn Bartlett, associate professor of sleep medicine from Sydney University and the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, said it is important we find a happy medium between valuing sleep and not putting too much pressure on people to sleep.

"The more pressure one puts on their sleep, the less likely they are to sleep. If you have a bad night, it's a bad night it doesn't mean the beginning of a downward cycle," Bartlett told The Huffington Post Australia.


Bartlett explains the difference between a few bad nights and chronic insomnia comes down to the duration and frequency of trouble sleeping.

"Chronic insomnia is when you have a difficulty going to sleep, staying asleep or waking too early, where any of those events takes longer than 30 minutes."

"Those symptoms have to appear at least three times or more per week, and be present for greater than three months," Bartlett said.

According to the Sleep Health Foundation, frequent sleeping difficulties including initiating and maintaining sleep as well as daytime fatigue are highly prevalent in Australia, with women suffering more than men.

"Insomnia is distressing and individuals often compensate for their poor quality sleep by spending too much time in bed 'trying to sleep' which potentially increases the fear of not being able to sleep," Bartlett said.

Often individuals then lose their confidence in their ability to sleep.

Common misconceptions of sleep

"Most people believe that if you wake up throughout the night there's something wrong with them, but waking is normal.

"We need to wake even briefly to change our body position and check our environment. Everybody wakes, even a healthy 24-year-old is going to wake two to three times a night however, they generally will not remember. By the time we get into our 70s we can be waking 5-7 times each night.

"There is also a perception that a lot of the night is spent in deep sleep but in reality we only spend 20 percent in deep sleep and it occurs predominantly in the first third of the night, usually in the first two sleep cycles (three hours."

"And this causes individuals to believe that they can't do things without a certain amount of sleep," Bartlett said.

As a result, they then spend a lot of time in bed attempting sleep.

"The bed becomes a place of wakefulness compared to a person who is sleep deprived and doesn't spend enough time in bed," Bartlett said.

Bartlett explains when sleep is the focal point of your life then it becomes associated with high levels of what she calls "sleep anxiety".

Tara Moore
"Insomnia is distressing and individuals often compensate for their poor quality sleep by spending too much time in bed 'trying to sleep' which potentially increases the fear of not being able to sleep."

"Sleep sits in front of you and you actually believe you can't do all sorts of things like communicate, socialise or go to work because of your sleep," Bartlett said.

Given the complexity of sleep, there is no one treatment that is a panacea, though Bartlett explains when it comes to insomnia it's about retraining how an individual thinks about sleep and changing behaviour patterns.

"The messages they have been giving their brain can exacerbate the 'flight or fight' response making them more alert and less able to sleep," Bartlett said.

This response from the brain is probably an adaption to poor quality sleep over a long period of time.

"It is important to remember the brain is plastic so retraining is likely to have a good outcome," Bartlett said.