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Stop Acute Insomnia From Setting You Back

Even a couple of sleepless nights can harm your performance and well-being. Here’s how you can get your sleep back on track.

Last updated: December 23, 2020
What Is Acute Insomnia — and How Do You Stop It?

You don’t need us to remind you that there’s a lot going on right now. On top of sadness, anger and/or stress, many people are still dealing with disrupted routines, with no return to “normal” in sight. All of this emotional unrest can, well, affect your rest. If you’re suddenly having a hard time falling and staying asleep, or you’re feeling like your shut-eye isn’t actually restorative, you may be suffering from a short-term form of insomnia called acute insomnia.

Insomnia can sound scary, but don’t panic: If you get it under control in the early stages, it’s less likely to spiral into a chronic problem. Here’s what you need to know.

What “Acute” Really Means

Acute insomnia is a form of sleeplessness that occurs for less than three consecutive months, though it doesn’t have a specific frequency, says Brandon Peters-Mathews, MD, a sleep-medicine doctor at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle and the author of “Sleep Through Insomnia.” That means you might suddenly experience it one or multiple nights per week throughout that stretch. Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, lasts at least three nights per week for three months or longer and requires a medical diagnosis. (If you’ve tallied that many sleepless nights for that long, make an appointment with your doc.)

The acute kind is pretty common: About 25 percent of Americans experience it each year, according to research from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. And epidemiologists predict that the number of acute-insomnia cases will continue to rise in several major countries around the world over the next few years.

As frustrating as a recurring lack of solid sleep may be, the good news is, it’s typically a temporary concern, as the name implies. And even better, about 75 percent of those dealing with it recover without developing the chronic type, the UPenn researchers found. By knowing how acute insomnia can occur and how you can calm it down, you have a better shot at dealing with it.

How It All Starts

In most cases, acute insomnia, which used to be known as “adjustment” insomnia, is brought on by short-term taxing situations, such as a temporary lack of cash flow, a big presentation for work, or a sick pet. “Stress makes it hard to turn the brain off and wind down when it is time to sleep,” explains Katherine Green, MD, the medical director of the Sleep Medicine Clinic at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. And one bad night can easily turn into a few, especially if you haven’t dealt with that stress or you resort to unhealthy ways of coping with it, such as drinking alcohol or eating for comfort (both of which can mess with your ability to fall and stay asleep, continuing the cycle).

What Is Acute Insomnia — and How Do You Stop It?

Why a Little Still Matters

While a few bad nights of sleep per week don’t sound like a huge deal, the effects can take a toll on your performance and well-being. Aside from the fact that frequent poor sleep can make you feel more overwhelmed and moody, people with acute insomnia tend to log less deep sleep, the regenerative kind that allows your body to heal and repair itself, according to research published in the journal “Sleep.” That’s obviously not going to help speed up your recovery between workouts, nor give you the lasting energy to get after your next one.

“When it comes to high-performance scenarios, some studies show that judgment and reaction time can be affected by even one or two nights of inadequate sleep,” says Dr Green. Whether you’re an athlete or just need to drive somewhere (operating a vehicle demands more brain power than you’d think), if you’re not mentally sharp, you could lose the ball, drop the weight or — worse — put yourself at risk for an accident.

Researchers don’t know exactly why, but it probably has to do with total sleep time, she adds. “There's pretty good evidence to show that most adults need at least seven hours of sleep each night to function at their full performance level,” says Dr. Green. “If you’re consistently getting less than that, or getting significantly less than that for even a short period of time, it's going to have an impact.”

“When it comes to high-performance scenarios, some studies show that judgement and reaction time can be affected by even one or two nights of inadequate sleep.”

Katherine Green
MD, Medical Director of the Sleep Medicine Clinic at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital

How to Reclaim Your Z’s

Anyone who’s ever laid in bed staring at the ceiling knows that trying to force yourself to sleep is like trying to keep your eyes open when you sneeze. And with acute insomnia, knowing you’re losing out on sleep thanks to stress is likely only going to make you more stressed, a vicious cycle. The upside is that once the stressor is resolved — say, you made it to payday, you crushed your presentation, or your pup is feeling better — you should be able to get back to your usual sleep routine, says Dr. Green.

In the moment, though, “mindfulness techniques are particularly helpful for stress- and anxiety-related insomnia,” says Dr. Green. She recommends full-body scans, where you close your eyes and slowly take inventory of the sensations from your toes upward, and guided meditations, which you can find in a number of apps. These can bring you into the present and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, allowing your body to rest and digest and putting you in a better headspace for sleep.

You also want to be super careful not to repeat any bad habits you may have fallen into to cope with a sleepless night, such as scrolling through social media at 2 am or binge-watching a show on your laptop in bed. Doing these regularly can throw off your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates your sleep-wake cycle, says Dr Green. “That's the No. 1 way acute insomnia can become chronic insomnia.”

Instead of reaching for a device when sleep eludes you, “reserve the bed as a space primarily for sleep,” says Dr Peters-Mathews. If you can’t conk out after 20 to 30 minutes, “the best thing you can do is get out of bed, move to a chair or the couch, and do a quiet activity that doesn't involve looking at screens, like reading a book or listening to a meditation,” says Dr Green. Return to bed only when you feel sleepy.

In fact, making your bed a slumber-only space could even help prevent sleeplessness from occurring in the first place. After all, acute insomnia may be temporary and certainly better than chronic, but no insomnia is better than some.

Take It Further

For more expert-backed guidance on mindset, as well as movement, nutrition, recovery and sleep, check out the Nike Training Club app.

Take It Further

For more expert-backed guidance on mindset, as well as movement, nutrition, recovery and sleep, check out the Nike Training Club app.

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