Most people have experienced what it’s like to not get enough sleep. The puffy eyes, the mild irritation, the increasing fatigue throughout the day are only some of the symptoms that arise after an all-nighter for an exam or a night spent stressing over work.

Insomnia is fairly common, and many people have suffered from it for either a short period of time or for most of their lives. Writing characters with Insomnia can be a great addition to your story or even serve as an important plot point. However, if done wrong, you may end up either misrepresenting the disorder or even boring your readers.

If you describe the same symptoms over and over again because you’re unaware of the multiple ways insomnia can express itself, you risk becoming repetitive in your description of the disorder.

So, first things first, you need to learn all of the intricacies that come with having insomnia, and this article is here to help you do exactly that.

Description of insomnia

So, what is insomnia? It can be described as a sleep disorder that makes it difficult for a person to rest properly. As we all know, sleep is an extremely important part of our routine and when someone cannot sleep, it can have a negative ripple effect on their energy levels throughout the day, their mental health, and their psychical health.

When Insomnia is expressed as a short-term issue, it is called acute insomnia. Acute Insomnia usually appears after a traumatic or anxiety-inducing event that has occurred or is currently underway. This type of insomnia will usually last a couple of days, weeks, or until the stressful event has passed.

Insomnia that is an ongoing, long-term issue is called chronic insomnia which can last for a couple of months or even years.

The Different Ways Insomnia can Manifest in Your Character

Your character’s insomnia can manifest itself in three different ways.

Your character might have difficulty falling asleep: Usually, in non-insomniac characters, it would take about 15 minutes to fall asleep. Hence a character with insomnia may take up to a few hours of twisting and turning in their beds before sleep finally catches up to them.

Another way insomnia can manifest in your character is if they have difficulty staying asleep throughout the night. Your character might end up waking up multiple times throughout the night and be easily startled by any noise in their immediate environment. Another way this type of insomnia may manifest is once your character is awake, they are unable to go back to sleep. So, they often end up laying in bed in the middle of the night with their minds running wild or end up getting up and doing something (ex: finishing a project).

The third way insomnia can manifest in your character is by them always feeling restless even if they have slept the night. Not all sleep is created equal and sometimes even after a full night’s sleep, you may wake up feeling tired still or like you haven’t slept at all.

Note that the way your character’s insomnia manifests throughout your story can change over time. Sometimes your character might have difficulty falling asleep whilst other times, they’re able to sleep but still feel tired when they wake up.

Insomnia, like many other disorders, affects different people in different ways. Some people may experience more severe insomnia than others or their insomnia might last longer. It is up to you, as the writer, to decide the degree of intensity of your character’s insomnia as well as how it is manifested throughout your book.

However, you should know that when portraying an insomniac, it is highly unlikely that they will never sleep. Sleep is an essential human need and even insomniacs sleep at times. The difference is that they never reach a point to which they feel well-rested or never sleep the full recommend 7-8 hours per night.

Symptoms of a Character with Insomnia

Insomnia affects many aspects of one’s life and if severe can become a core issue in your character’s story.

The symptoms are the main ways insomnia may affect the life of your character:

  • Your character may become more irritable and anxious.
  • May be extremely tired in the daytime to the point of feeling lethargic.
  • May experience microsleeps during the day which is when someone doses off for a few seconds without even realizing it
  • May have immense difficulty focusing on their tasks, school, their job or even the conversations of their friends.
  • Frequent changes in mood.

Chronic Insomnia may also lead to the following problems in the long run

  • An Increased risk of experiencing strokes, asthma, seizures, obesity, high blood pressure, heart diseases and inflammation.
  • Insomnia may also weaken  one’s immune system or increase your character’s risk of getting diabetes.
  • Insomnia may also increase your character’s risk of having mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
  • Characters with Insomnia are also more likely to experience other sleep disorders like sleep paralysis.

What is causing your character’s Insomnia?

If you decide to include an insomniac character in your story, you might want to explain why their insomnia developed. In order to do so, you must know all the possible causes of insomnia in real people.

There are many reasons insomnia can develop in people. One of the most common reasons insomnia develops is because of bad sleeping habits. If your character tends to spend multiple nights purposefully pulling all-nighters (whether it be to study or to finish a project), this may dysregulate their biological clock causing them to have short-term insomnia.

However, short term insomnia is also commonly caused by things that are out of your characters control such as:

  • Excessive stress
  • Your character’s room may be too hot or too cold
  • Being physically inactive or out of shape
  • Having frequent nightmares
  • Trauma
  • Sleeping in new environments
  • Jet lag
  • Taking certain types of medication

Chronic or long-term insomnia can be caused by other underlying conditions including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance abuse (ex: cocaine/ ecstasy)
  • Diabetes
  • Sleep apnea
  • Having an Overactive Thyroid
  • Chronic pain

If your character has Alzheimer’s disease or is going through menopause this may also cause them to have insomnia as well.

Another factor that may increase your character’s risk of insomnia is using their phones before bedtime.

Although sometimes it is possible to identify the cause of long-term insomnia, other times the cause remains unknown (which is called primary insomnia).

There is also an extremely rare condition called fatal familial insomnia. This condition prevents a person from sleeping to the point where it becomes life-threatening. This genetic disorder, over time, will cause brain damage and eventually death (the life expectancy after diagnosis is 7 months to 3 years).

Diagnosing an insomniac character

If someone’s symptoms are severe enough that they disrupt their daily functioning, they will usually seek help. In this case, you may write a character that goes to a medical professional or a sleep specialist for diagnosis.

The medical professional will ask about the person’s medical history and about certain habits your character might have that may be affecting their sleep cycles (ex: asking about their sleeping habits or their use of drugs/ alcohol).

The doctor may also perform physical examinations and tests for any other conditions your character might have that may be causing or worsening their insomnia.

Another method of diagnosis is using a device that will track your character’s sleep cycles as they are asleep. This way the doctor is able to evaluate if there are any abnormalities in your character’s sleep cycles. (ex: your character spending less time in rem sleep than non-insomniacs).

For a diagnosis of Insomnia, the following conditions must be met:

  • Your character must have difficulty sleeping, or staying asleep
  • They must be unable to sleep 3 night/week for at least 3 months
  • Your character’s insomnia must affect their daily lives in a negative way (they show symptoms of poor concentration, irritability etc., during the day).  

How your insomniac character can seek treatment

There are many ways you can write a character seeking treatment for their Insomnia. Note that not all types of treatments work for everyone hence it is unlikely that the first thing your character tries will work for them. People with insomnia will usually try multiple options before finding something that works well.

The types of treatments include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy
  • Changing the person’s sleep habits/hygiene (ex: encouraging the person to avoid caffeine, exercise or avoid being on their phone before bed)
  • If the person has another mental or psychical disorder that is causing/worsening their insomnia, they might need to seek treatment for the primary disorder in order to get proper sleep.
  • Over the counter medication can be used (ex: Benadryl)
  • Prescription medication (Lunesta, Ambien etc.)
  • Lifestyle changes may be recommended
  • Natural sleep aids such as tea or a glass or warm milk before bed
  • Meditation
  • Melatonin supplements (there is not enough research to know whether these supplements truly work)
  • Aromatherapy ( inhaling essential oils such as chamomile, lavender or neroli)

Writing Insomnia according to real people

Taking on the task of accurately representing any disorder in your story can be daunting as a writer. I found that researching and reading about real people who live with the disorder you’re writing about can be a great way of inspiring the development of your character’s thoughts & feelings about their disorder.

So, to inspire your writing here are a few comments from real people with Insomnia:

Comment from: Ibizaanne, 65-74 Female (Patient)

I am suffering with anxiety and 3 months ago, started going to sleep and being woken at about 4.30 am with a burning skin sensation down my back, palpitations, and not being able to sleep any longer. Three months on, this is still happening night in and night out. I’ve tried all sorts to sleep longer but can’t. Never had this in my life.

Comment from: KDB81391, 25-34 Male (Patient)

I smoked weed for about a year. I quit cold turkey but the withdrawals were severe. It got to a point where the inside of my brain felt like it was burning. Ever since then, I’ve had insomnia; I never slept or felt tired again, I don’t know what happened.

Comment from: Angelalynn, 35-44 Female (Caregiver)

I’m not sure what is worse. Not sleeping because of insomnia, for 5 to 6 days at a time, or the absolutely soul decimating and horrific nightmares when sleep does come. I can recall every single dream. I can recall nightmares from my very early childhood. It amazes me that some people don’t have dreams. I can remember them with more detail than waking life most days. And I have multiple and continuing and recurring nightmares when I sleep. I just want a slight semblance of normalcy. Death seems better.

Comment from: JOSHUA, 35-44 Male (Patient)

Insomnia can be very difficult to deal with. I prefer not to take any kind of drugs if I can. So a good alternative I’ve found for me is soothing sounds. Anything nature like, for instance rain sounds. It does the job for me occasionally.

Comment from: Ariel, 25-34 Female (Patient)

I smoked marijuana for about 10 years chronic, cold turkey stopped 3 months ago, and I haven’t been able to sleep. I’m so sad and desperate, I don’t know what to do. My doctor prescribed me Ambien 5 mg for my insomnia, and then 10 mg, but nothing worked; my brain was like wired. I’ve tried Remeron up to the highest dose, and nothing. Lastly now I’m on trazodone started 50, 100, 150, and now 200 mg, and still not working. I’m not going into a deep sleep and my sleep is highly disturbed. I’m so frustrated and just feel hopeless.

Comment from: Ginger, 55-64 Female (Patient)

I am a 55 year old female and I have suffered with insomnia for many years. The last 2 years, I only get an hour of sleep a night. My brain doesn’t ever shut down and I can’t even nap. I never get tired! I have tried every natural and every prescription there is. I have brain damage from lack of sleep. I can’t function at all anymore. Currently I’m taking trazadone at 300 and sometimes 450 mg at night. I have been using this for the last 2 years. It doesn’t help.

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