Why Can’t I Sleep? Do I Have a Sleep Disorder?

Sleep Disorder

Most people, at one time or another, have experienced trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Inability to sleep occasionally is normal and is often the result of some sort of stress in life. However, when sleep problems become a regular occurrence and begin to affect one’s ability to function in daily life, the person may have developed a sleep disorder.

Do I Have a Sleep Disorder?

A lack of adequate sleep may not seem like a big problem, but it can seriously affect one’s performance at school or work, ability to concentrate, ability to control emotions, and ability to handle stress. Lack of sleep is a challenge to one’s own general health and well-being.

Adequate sleep is a great buffer that helps to protect people from everyday stress. Sleep is a vital support for one’s ability to rejuvenate the mind and body.

Any type of sleep deficiency can seriously increase one’s vulnerability to a variety of physical disorders and to a host of negative feelings, emotions and behaviors:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Frustration
  • Irrational thinking
  • Irritability
  • Sadness

Inadequate sleep:

  • A reduction in the amount of sleep one experiences. This occurs when people find that they are not sleeping enough hours each night.
  • A reduction in the quality of sleep one is receiving. This occurs when people find that they are having a hard time falling asleep, often awaken, and then may have difficulty going back to sleep. This reduction causes a dramatic break in the sleep cycle.

What is the Sleep Cycle?

Sleep is an altered state of consciousness in which brain waves pass through distinct stages that keep cycling between REM (Rapid-Eye Movement) and Non-REM sleep. This is referring to the sleep cycle, and this is how the sleep cycle works:

There are four stages of sleep: Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3, and REM. These stages do not always occur in order. In fact, they rarely occur in order. The sleep cycle begins with three Non-REM phases that people typically go through before reaching REM sleep:


This stage between asleep and awake is almost always first. It may be just a minute or so long, but is usually less. It is just a transition from awake to Stage 2 where one spends about seventy-five percent of the night. Typically, a person will drift straight through Stage 1 for a minute or two, and be in Stage 2 for some time. One’s eyes are closed, but it’s easy to wake the person up.


This is a light sleep. One’s heart rate slows and one’s body temperature drops. The body is getting ready for deep sleep.

Stage 3 – DEEP SLEEP

This stage is tricky. Deep sleep is also called delta sleep. It is the restorative sleep for the body, when the brain secretes growth hormones, and when our breathing is most regulated. Children have a long period of delta sleep. As we age, the amount of delta sleep that we have decreases by a certain percent each year, so that by the time we reach ages 60 to 70 we have little to NO delta sleep. Men begin to bypass the delta sleep stage sooner than women. So, it is likely that in an adult population, a researcher will not see delta when studying a normal night of sleep. There will be a night here and there when an adult will have an instance of some delta activity, but it is not a stage that they go through on a nightly basis. It is harder to rouse one during this stage, and if someone wakes one up, one would feel disoriented for a few minutes. During the deep stages of Non-REM sleep, the body repairs and re-grows tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system.

The Sleep Cycle now moves into deep REM sleep: Usually, REM sleep happens approximately 90 minutes after one falls asleep. The first period of REM typically lasts 10 minutes. Each of the later REM stages gets longer, and the final one may last up to an hour. One’s heart rate and breathing quicken. One tends to have dreams during REM sleep. The cycle then begins all over again. The last REM cycle is the longest and most restorative and awakening during this cycle can leave one feeling disoriented.

Common Types of Sleep Disorders

Many different types of sleep disorders are listed below. Check if you think any of them might apply to you.

Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder is a disorder in which a person’s sleep is delayed by two or more hours beyond the conventional bedtime. This delay in falling asleep causes difficulty in waking up at a desired time.

Insomnia is the most common type of sleep disorder. Some of the symptoms of insomnia include difficulty getting to sleep, waking many times during the night, and often waking before it is time to actually get up. Insomnia can affect normal daytime activities. Insomnia is most often caused by stress, anxiety, certain medications, depression and/or inadequate sleep habits.

Narcolepsy occurs when people feel excessively sleepy in the daytime. The sleepiness felt with narcolepsy is overwhelming. Some people with narcolepsy have uncontrolled sleepy periods that can occur regardless of what they are doing, while others have constant sleepiness throughout the day. The person has this feeling for a period of time longer than three months, and it is accompanied by a higher than usual percentage of REM sleep.

Nightmares are frightening dreams that occur during deep, REM sleep.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder is the movement of hands, arms, feet, and legs during sleep that frequently causes arousals and disturbs the sleep cycles. Whether the person remembers waking or not, the brain often shifts from sleep to wake in a response to the jerking of the limbs causing the sleep cycle to be disrupted and worse excessive daytime sleepiness.

Restless Leg Syndrome occurs during wake hours and is often worse in the evening and before bedtime, which can lead to sleep onset insomnia. This discomfort can come in the form of an urge to move one’s legs and feet to get relief. People find themselves experiencing excessive and rhythmic movements while they are sleeping.

Sleep Apnea occurs when soft tissue covers the airway, either partially or completely, causing a cessation of breathing for ten seconds or longer repeatedly through the night. This can cause frequent arousals and disruption of the desired sleep cycle. These disruptions cause those suffering from sleep apnea to be very tired during the day.

Sleep Talking is a sleep disorder defined as talking during sleep without being aware of it. Sleep talking can involve complicated dialogues or monologues, complete gibberish, or mumbling. The good news is that for most people it is a rare and short-lived occurrence.

Sleep Terror Disorder occurs mostly in children but can be found in adults. Night terrors are frightful images that appear in a person’s dream but are often difficult to remember upon awakening.

Sleepwalking is a disorder that causes people to get out of bed and walk while they are sleeping. It usually happens when a person is going from the deep stage of sleep to a lighter stage, or into the wake state. The sleepwalker can’t respond during the event and usually does not remember it.

My Self-Care Sleep Habits

Sleep habits are often dependent on wellness habits that you display during the day. Think about some of your wellness habits and how they may be negatively affecting your ability to sleep at night. In the chart on the attached worksheet, write about how you can make positive change in your wellness habits.

Click here to download the My Self-Care Sleep Habits worksheet.

This material was excerpted from Coping with Sleep Issues by Ester R.A. Leutenberg and John J. Liptak, EdD.

1 thought on “Why Can’t I Sleep? Do I Have a Sleep Disorder?

  1. Kushly

    My brother had trouble sleeping as a child. At first he had nightmares for 3 years. This happened once a month, or more often. It was even scary sometimes, especially when I lived with him in the same room. At the age of 17 he became a sleepwalker. I no longer lived with my parents, but I will remember these stories for a long time. They said that sometimes he could throw all the food out of the refrigerator at night … And once he woke up in our garage))) Then it stopped. But even now we remember this with laughter, but my mother could not sleep all night because she was afraid for my brother … I was interested in reading about the dream. I would be grateful for a separate article about sleepwalking.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.