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What is the difference between insomnia and just sleeping badly?

Insomnia is a term which is familiar to many people. In our everyday language, we often use it to indicate that we are not sleeping well. For instance, one might say ‘I suffer from insomnia’ when we really mean that we don’t sleep too well. To doctors, insomnia is a medical condition and may relate to disturbances in mental health.

So, sleep problems can be divided into two groups – disturbed sleep which is more commonly encountered and insomnia, which is seen to be the more serious condition.


Insomnia is considered to be a medical condition. Although we might use the term in our everyday language to indicate poor sleep, when used by doctors, the word insomnia indicates that the problem has gone a stage further - either no sleep or very little sleep. Hence, true insomnia, thankfully, is rare.

The word insomnia (that is to say, true insomnia) is used by the medical profession in a number of situations including:

  • When someone suffers from poor sleep due to a psychological or psychiatric condition such as schizophrenia, doctors might use the term insomnia. For example, people who are depressed may suffer from insomnia and it is clear that this is a situation that needs to be handled by a doctor.
  • Insomnia can also occur with no apparent cause – in other words, you don’t have to suffer from any medical, psychiatric or psychological condition to suffer from insomnia. This situation may be thought of as the extreme of disturbed sleep or poor sleep which is described in the section below. People suffering from true insomnia with no apparent cause appear to go for weeks with little or no sleep – and this can in turn affect their health in a number of major ways, leading to chronic tiredness, depression (caused by their insomnia) and poor immune function because their bodies are unable to cope with the lack of rest.

Disturbed sleep

This is the more common problem of the two and, unlike insomnia, is a minor health condition. Most people experiencing disturbed sleep will be able to relate to the causes listed in our sleep problems page.

Some may feel that there is no obvious single cause, but perhaps a combination of a number of factors could account for their disturbed sleep experienced. Those with disturbed sleep may describe a number of experiences:

  • Some drop off to sleep easily, but wake up frequently during the night
  • Others have difficulty falling asleep, laying awake for hours and eventually fall asleep in the early hours of the morning
  • Yet others may experience a combination of the two