6 Common Sleep Disorders

It's estimated that inadequite sleep affects 33-45% of Australian adults. While many sleep issues can be helped greatly by practicing better sleep hygiene and utilising tools like mindfulness and herbal teas, sleep disorders will require a more comprehensive treatment. Despite how common sleep disorders are in Australia, sufferers can have a hard time recognising the signs of a more serious problem and often don't seek proper help. Below are a list of common sleep disorders, their symptoms and how you can get help for them. 


Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder and refers to chronic problems in getting adequate sleep. It occurs in three basic patterns: (1) difficulty in falling asleep initially, (2) difficulty in remaining asleep, and (3) persistent early-morning awakening. Difficulty falling asleep is the most common problem among young people, whereas trouble staying asleep and early-morning awakenings are the most common syndromes among middle-aged and elderly people (Hublin & Partinen, 2002). Moreover, insomnia is associated with daytime fatigue, impaired cognitive functioning, an elevated risk for accidents, reduced productivity, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, hypertension, and increased health problems (Edinger & Means, 2005; Kyle, Morgan, & Espie, 2010; Vgontzas et al., 2008). 

While the use of medication to treat insomnia can be effective, it can have negative long-term effects and can neglect treating the causes of the disorder.  Cognitive therapy can help treat insomnia and can be more successful and effective long term, focusing on the root cause of the problem, and a therapist can help you come up with an effective treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. Other treatments include relaxation and meditation techniques, which have proven to be very effective with some people. If you have trouble sleeping for extended periods of time or have significant trouble staying asleep at night we recommend talking to your healthcare professional about these problems and come up with a treatment plan. 

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea involves frequent, reflexive gasping for air that awakens a person and disrupts sleep. Some sufferers are awakened from their sleep hundreds of times a night. Apnea occurs when a person literally stops breathing for a minimum of 10 seconds. This disorder, which is usually accompanied by loud snoring, is seen in about 2% of women and about 4% of men. 

Sleep apnea may be treated via lifestyle modifications (weight loss, reduced alcohol intake, improved sleep hygiene), drug therapy, and special masks and oral devices that improve airflow. If you believe that you suffer from Sleep Apnea we recommend visiting your healthcare professional and coming up with a treatment plan.


Nightmares are anxiety-arousing dreams that lead to awakening, usually from REM sleep.  Typically, a person who awakens from a nightmare recalls a vivid dream and may have difficulty getting back to sleep. Significant stress in one’s life is associated with increased frequency and intensity of nightmares (Nielsen & Levin, 2009). Although about 5% of adults have occasional troubles with nightmares, these frightening episodes are mainly a problem among children (Schredl, 2009). Most children have sporadic nightmares, but persistent nightmares may reflect an emotional disturbance. If a child’s nightmares are frequent and unpleasant, counselling may prove helpful, however most children outgrow the problem on their own. 

Night terrors

Night terrors (also called sleep terrors) are abrupt awakenings from REM sleep accompanied by intense autonomic arousal and feelings of panic. Night terrors can produce drastic increases in heart rate. They usually occur during stage 4 sleep early in the night (Nielsen & Zadra, 2000). Sufferers typically scream, bolt upright, and then stare into space. They do not usually recall a coherent dream, although they may remember a single frightening image. The panic normally fades quickly, and a return to sleep is fairly easy. Night terrors can occur in adults, but they are especially common in children ages 3 to 8. Night terrors are not indicative of an emotional disturbance, and are often a temporary problem that do not require treatment. 

Sleep Walking

Somnambulism, or sleepwalking, occurs when a person arises and wanders about while remaining asleep. About 15% of children and 3% of adults exhibit repetitive sleepwalking (Cartwright, 2006). Sleepwalking tends to occur during the first 3 hours of sleep, when individuals are in slow-wave sleep. Episodes may last from 15 seconds to 30 minutes (Aldrich, 2000). Sleep- walkers may awaken during their journey, or they may return to bed without any recollection of their trip. The causes of this unusual disorder are unknown, although it appears to have a genetic predisposition (Keefauver & Guilleminault, 1994). Also, episodes may be more likely in people who use nonbenzodiazepine sedatives (Gunn & Gunn, 2006). Sleepwalking does not appear to be a manifestation of underlying emotional or psychological problems (Mahowald, 1993) but sleepwalkers are prone to accidents, including life-threatening ones (Gunn & Gunn, 2006). 

REM sleep behaviour disorder

REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD) is marked by potentially troublesome dream enactments during REM periods. People who exhibit this syndrome may talk, yell, gesture, flail about, or leap out of bed during their REM dreams. When questioned, many report that they were being chased or attacked in their dreams. Their dream enactments can get surprisingly violent, and they often hurt themselves or their bed partners (Mahowald & Schenck, 2005b). RBD occurs mostly in men, who typically begin experiencing this problem in their fifties or sixties. As noted earlier, people in REM sleep normally are virtually paralyzed, which prevents dream enactments. The cause of RBD appears to be some sort of deterioration in the brainstem structures that are normally responsible for this immobilization during REM periods (Tippmann-Peikert et al., 2006). 

Before self-diagnosing, contact your healthcare professional and speak with them about the problems you’re having.

This information has been taken from Weiten Psychology Themes and Variations 9th c2013 txtbk

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