Idiopathic Insomnia — What Does It Mean and How Can You Deal With It?

Idiopathic insomnia is a diagnosis sometimes given to a case of very long-term chronic insomnia that began in early childhood or in some cases from birth. It is also called “child onset insomnia.” This type of insomnia cannot be traced to any known direct cause.

Idiopathic insomnia can range from mild to moderate to severe. There appears to be a genetic component, as it does seem to run in families. However, no specific gene for it has been identified.

Also, while there is a possibility that this type of insomnia may be linked to a neurological disruption or abnormality in the sleep/wake system of the brain, this has not been proven and no specific part of the brain has been targeted as the cause of this condition. Sleep studies reveal noticeable differences in brain activity when compared to normal sleepers, but again, no one knows why.

idiopathic insomnia is very frustratingSo If you get diagnosed with idiopathic insomnia, the doctor is essentially saying to you, “We don’t know why you have had chronic insomnia all your life, and we don’t know what you can do to cure it. There is no known cause or treatment for idiopathic insomnia.”

What doctors are really telling you about idiopathic insomnia is that there is no known medical cause and no known medical cure. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t get better.

It’s never a cheery thing to be diagnosed with such a vague and seemingly incurable disorder. But according to medical literature (some of which you are probably already familiar with if you’ve done a basic Google search), not everyone who has idiopathic insomnia suffers terribly from it. Many of those who have mild to moderate versions seem to adjust well to it and show no signs of mental or emotional distress.

Others, though, do suffer tremendously from this condition, not just mentally but physically. Constant fatigue is understandably a problem, along with difficulty in carrying out daily mental and physical functions with ease and energy. No surprise there.

While I am not in the least qualified to make medical judgments, of course, I can still offer hope by pointing out that there are many ways to treat chronic insomnia.

No one can call themselves an incurable insomniac until they have tried every possible option.

Some people find relief from certain medications or a combination of medications, such as antidepressants, but since no medication exists specifically for idiopathic insomnia, finding the right one can be a hit-or-miss experience, so you have to be patient.

Also, keep in mind…

How You Feel About Your Insomnia Is Not the Same As Having Insomnia

If you are depressed about having idiopathic insomnia, it’s important to realize that your depression is separate from your insomnia. Now, I understand if you don’t believe that right now, but think it over for a minute.

There are people all over the world who are working very hard to get by with as little sleep as possible. They are doing all kinds of experiments with “polyphastic” sleep, which is a method of sleeping only two hours per 24 hours, in the form of short naps.

(One of the most famous experimenters of polyphastic sleep was blogger Steve Pavlina, who still maintains that it was a positive growth experience and he’d like to try it again some time.)

If there are people in this world eager and excited to get only 2 hours of sleep a day, it becomes clearer that how you FEEL about your insomnia is separate from your insomnia. It’s not the number of hours of sleep you get that determines your state of mind.

Am I saying that having idiopathic insomnia is a great thing and you should feel wonderful about it? Certainly not. I know how life-disrupting and upsetting chronic insomnia is and I can only imagine how that feeling could be magnified by putting up with it for decades.

And yes, I know you did not choose idiopathic insomnia the way polyphastic sleepers choose to severely limit their hours of sleep.

But once you separate your feelings about your insomnia from your actual insomnia, a mental shift takes place that may start small but then builds to monumental if you keep cultivating it.

Why? Because as I’ve said so many times, insomnia is paradoxical. Whether it’s chronic, idiopathic, transient, intermittent, initial, middle, terminal… no matter what type of insomnia you have, they all share this one leading characteristic:

The more you worry, obsess, panic and get depressed over your lack of sleep, the worse your insomnia becomes.

This is because sleep is a process of relaxation and letting go, and mental stress is a process of trying to control a situation with fear. The outcome of that is tension and discomfort.

Trying to sleep while in a state of fear is like trying to fall up instead of down. Until gravity laws change, we will always fall down, and until we let go of our fear of insomnia, we will never fall asleep.

So if you seek medical treatment for your sleep problems and end up being diagnosed with idiopathic insomnia, try these methods before giving up:

  1. Never give up! It will take you longer than average to get a decent sleep pattern set up because NOT sleeping is very deeply ingrained in your brain as habitual behavior and thinking patterns. Sleep medicine may not be able to pinpoint the direct portion of your brain that’s responsible for your long-term insomnia, but that’s actually good news. Your brain is OK structurally, but habitual behavior is very powerful. Just try walking backwards for a day or using only your non-dominant hand for a week and you’ll see for yourself.
  2. Practice all of the suggestions in the 10-day insomnia self-help tutorial, even if you think they don’t apply to such a hard-core case of chronic insomnia as yours. Start with Day 1 and move through to Day 10 and then decide. If it’s helpful, go through it again several times.
  3. Aim for a modest goal at first. If you are sleeping one hour a night, set a reaonable goal of getting two hours.
  4. Accept and embrace being a short sleeper. Even if you do recover from idiopathic insomnia, you might never be able to sleep eight hours straight. And why would you want to if you don’t have to? Short sleepers are just as healthy as long sleepers, can get a lot done and enjoy life more. And that reminds me…
  5. Enjoy life more. Seriously. Find things that truly interest you and pursue them. Develop talents and gifts you have that you’ve put aside. Learn new things. Stop putting life on hold until you straighten out your sleep problems. You can work on your idiopathic insomnia and still live your life, though it may not feel that way right now.
  6. If you find it impossible to enjoy life with idiopathic insomnia, then use that as a cue to work more on your mental state. Don’t let years of habitual pessimism or cynicism about improving your sleep take control of your mind or your life. Start with this article on cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.
  7. And just one more thing… While insomnia is extremely common, idiopathic insomnia is quite rare. There is always a chance that you have been misdiagnosed. A second opinion is always a wise choice if there’s any doubt in your mind.

So you’ve gotten your diagnosis. Has it helped you sleep better? My guess is no, so it’s time to take a different approach… one that is proactive, positive and encouraging.

And please be patient while you make the transition. If getting over idiopathic insomnia were a smooth, easy road, you’d have already done it, right? Take the long, rocky road instead, and go where it leads you. But keep going.

Start working on your idiopathic insomnia here with the 10-Day Self Help for Insomnia Tutorial.

Return to the Types of Insomnia page.