How to Tell if You Have a Sleep Disorder

Published on: 11 Dec 2019
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
sleep disorder

Tossing. Turning. Staring at the ceiling. Toss again. Turn again. Flip on the TV. Grab a snack. Wrestle with the sheets. Start all over.

If you deal with disrupted sleep, this may be your nightly routine and it could be more than that extra cup of coffee you drank at the end of the day. In actuality, you could have a sleep disorder. And as it turns out, sleep disorders aren’t just physical — they are considered by experts to be mental health conditions.

How do you know if you have a sleep disorder? There may be some clues hiding in plain sight.

Types of Sleep Disorders

Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., LPCC-S and Talkspace therapist, defines a sleep disorder as “a diagnosable mental health condition in which an individual struggles with either being able to fall asleep, stay asleep, maintain restful sleep, or experiences sleep-related disturbances.” These disturbances can include nightmares, night terrors, and breathing problems while sleeping.

Just like the varied types of depression and anxiety that people experience, the same goes for sleep disorders. The most common sleep disorders include insomnia, breathing-related sleep disorders, and parasomnias, another word for sleepwalking, night terrors, and other undesirable physical or verbal behaviors during sleep.

If you find yourself awake for hours on end regularly, it might be time to meet with your doctor to discuss the possibility of insomnia, which can include symptoms of:

  • Problems falling asleep
  • Problems staying asleep
  • Problems maintaining restful sleep

Do you frequently wake yourself up with heavy snoring? Or perhaps your partner has nudged you after hearing labored — or interrupted — breathing. Sleep apnea, when breathing repeatedly stops and starts, is an example of a breathing-related sleep disorder, these conditions often being marked by disturbances in your breathing patterns during sleep.

Your partner may think it’s humorous when you start talking in your sleep or even walk around the room, but these instances can point to a diagnosable sleep condition. Parasomnias include :

  • Problems with the sleep/wake cycle
  • Sleepwalking
  • Sleep terrors
  • Nightmares
  • Restless legs

These disruptive disorders usually occur during arousals from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep or arousals from non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and they can take place during specific stages of sleep, or when waking or falling asleep. Parasomnias can be stressful for both the person experiencing them and a partner sharing the bed.

What Are Some Common Causes?

Maybe you’ve experienced troubled sleep for as long as you can remember. Or, perhaps you can pinpoint a recent time in your life in which your sleep problems began. Either way, sleep disorders can be brought on by a number of sources.

“For some, it may be due to issues within the environment, such as sleeping in a bedroom that’s not conducive to sleep,” Dr. Rachel O’Neill says. “For other individuals, biological factors may contribute to the sleep-related issues.” For instance, some medical conditions can bring on problematic sleep.

Sleep issues may also simply be caused by an atypical sleep schedule. “For example, this can include being required to do shift work that impacts the individual’s circadian rhythm,” Dr. Rachel O’Neill adds.

What Should You Do About It?

Maybe some of these points are hitting home for you and you’re currently reviewing the last few nights when sleep was fleeting — or perhaps barely happened at all. Don’t lose hope. There are ways you can find help, and in the process, finally achieve quality sleep.

Talk to your doctor

Your first stop should be to see a professional, such as your doctor. “Having a complete evaluation can help rule out medical causes for sleep-related issues and can help determine the best course of treatment,” Dr. Rachel O’Neill advises.

Create a healthy routine

After that, it really comes down to changes you can make in your routine and your habits. Sleep loves a routine, and that means sticking to a set bedtime, waking up consistently at the same time every day, and avoiding evening distractions that can impact your sleep.

When working with your doctor or a therapist, they may suggest practices that promote good sleep hygiene. Be intentional with your sleep routine and make it a high priority.

When working with sleep-deprived individuals, Dr. Rachel O’Neill recommends maintaining a set bedtime, avoiding technology such as phones or TV’s for at least an hour before bed, and only using the bedroom for sleep and sex.

You’re Not Alone

As you spend another night staring at the ceiling fan blades whirring overhead or nibbling on that piece of leftover cake, know that you’re not alone and many people out there also struggle with sleep disorders.

Dr. Rachel O’Neill says that sleep disorders are “pretty common” and most people at some point in their lives fight to get good sleep — but there are “tangible things” that can be done to improve sleep quality. So, breathe in, breathe out, and check in with a medical or mental health provider as you navigate a treatment plan that works best for you. There are therapeutic programs specifically designed to help you sleep and if you’re ready to start talking to a mental health professional today, give online therapy a try to help change the way you sleep. 

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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