What Insomnia Feels Like: You're Always Tired but Not Sleepy

Woman in bed checking smartphone

FG Trade/Getty Images

People with chronic insomnia are often stressed and worn out but unable to sleep. Until you've experienced it yourself, it may seem contradictory that a person can be utterly exhausted yet unable to sleep, but that's precisely what distinguishes insomnia from other sleep disorders.

Conditions such as sleep apnea and narcolepsy, or just regular sleep deprivation, cause excessive daytime sleepiness; people will nod off while doing normal daytime activities such as driving or sitting at a desk.

But with chronic insomnia, people can't sleep—at least not long and deep enough to keep their bodies and minds functioning at 100%. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), insomnia is considered chronic if it occurs at least three times per week and persists for more than three months.

Common symptoms of insomnia, per the AASM, include:

  • Feeling fatigued
  • Having trouble paying attention, concentrating, or remembering
  • Being irritable or moody
  • Having difficulties performing at school or work
  • Experiencing daytime sleepiness
  • Lacking energy or motivation
  • Making errors or having accidents
  • Being concerned or frustrated about your lack of sleep

Jo Dickison, 38, has battled insomnia since a stressful family conflict in 2003. Dickison had switched back and forth between prescription meds, tried cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, better sleep hygiene, and given up caffeine over the years—but sometimes still spent weeks sleeping less than four hours a night. Yet Dickison never felt sleepy during the day, just worn out.

"People don't get it," Dickison said. "I can't nap; I wish I could. I get fatigued and too tired to do things like go out to dinner with friends. Not because I'm afraid I'll fall asleep, but because I just can't deal with socializing and putting out the extra effort."

Personal relationships are often profoundly affected when a person experiences chronic sleep deprivation. Rebecca Wiseman, 26, developed insomnia while pregnant with a second set of twins. Even after the babies began sleeping soundly, the stay-at-home mom reported still lying awake most nights.

"I'm tired and get headaches all the time, which my doctor says is caused by my lack of sleep," said Wiseman. "I don't have the energy that I used to play with my older girls, and it causes stress between my husband and me. We seem to argue more often about very stupid issues, on things like sweeping or laundry."

Sleep deprivation can take a heavy toll, both physically and emotionally. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), not getting enough sleep has been linked with many chronic health conditions, including depression, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. That said, talk to your healthcare provider about sleep hygiene, medication, or therapy if you're not sleeping as well as you should be.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles