The Toxic Combination of Insomnia and Mental Illness

Dawn Bevier

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It’s 5:21 a.m. and I have been up for almost two hours.

David Benioff says in his book City of Thieves, “I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.”

Well, “the floorboards of [my] skull” have been collecting dust for ages, and my “little monsters” always manage to kind the key to unlock my “steamer trunk.”

Case in point.

The minute my eyes open, no matter what ungodly hour of the night, I cannot make them close again. My brain immediately whispers to me, spurring me out of my fog with thoughts about what I could do with these extra hours. For example, I’m a teacher, so I start thinking about how many papers I could grade. I’m also a writer, so I sit down at my computer and start trying to either compose a new article or come up with creative ideas for a future one.

The bad thing is I’ve practically given up on trying to make those “little monsters” in my head quiet down and go back to sleep. Why? Because it seems pointless.

If I lie in the bed, the thoughts still don’t stop, so I figure, “Why waste my time lying in bed?” And up I go to the coffee maker, which inevitably seals my fate.

I imagine if you’re reading this, you’re a common sufferer of insomnia as well. But if you’re a person reading this and you also have a mental illness or disorder, overcoming insomnia is exponentially more difficult.

As a matter of fact, Web MD states that “psychiatric disorders are the leading cause of insomnia.”

And though I did research to prove this fact, I really didn’t need to, because I am a long time sufferer of anxiety disorder and OCD. And while my medications do help me function better during the day, at night some sort of evil voodoo I can’t understand makes them impotent.

The worst part?

For people with mental illnesses like me, the consequences of insomnia are far more debilitating than for those who have not been diagnosed with a mental disorder. After all, our disorders themselves usually already have sleeping problems as a side effect.

And this fact creates a circular cause and effect scenario that prevents us from being able to manage our disorder and effectively function in everyday life.

Insomnia’s Domino Effect on Mental Illness

The fatigue that comes with insomnia lessens a person’s ability to control emotions and think rationally, therefore creating more depression and anxiety

An article titled “10 Things to Hate About Sleep Loss,” by Camille Peri mentions that insomnia “impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem-solving.” The article also states that sleep loss lessens the ability to learn new things and the ability to remember things already learned.

And the poor decision making that often comes as a side effect of insomnia can result in thoughts and behaviors that can increase the intensity of mental disorders.

For example, the byproducts of insomnia can easily cause careless mistakes on the job and unregulated emotional outbursts in interactions with spouses, families, and friends. So if a person such as myself makes a major mistake at work or lashes out unfairly at loved ones, the errors multiply my anxiety, which inherently makes it harder to get the needed rest to put the situation into proper perspective.

And so the cycle continues to persist. The anxiety keeps me up that night, increasing the likelihood that the same poor judgment calls will be made again.

Sleepiness during the day makes it hard to complete daily responsibilities, which may increase the severity of a mental disorder

If a person suffers from chronic insomnia, the buildup of fatigue can result in an inability to follow through on everyday tasks on both the work and home fronts.

For example, instead of merely making errors at work or intensifying relationship problems, the sufferer may decide not to act at all. If he or she is simply too tired or mentally drained to complete mandatory duties at work or follow through on activities needed to sustain close bonds with loved ones, a poisonous concoction of guilt, anxiety, and depression is formed.

The results of these heightened emotions almost ensure more sleepless nights, which prevents the sufferer from acquiring the energy needed to repair the damage done and resume their obligatory roles as productive workers, parents, friends, and lovers.

Insomnia causes lifestyle and physical changes which heighten the impact of mental illnesses

People who suffer from insomnia often try to overcome their fatigue through eating or drinking things that they think will give them a boost of energy. And while doing so may accomplish their desire in the short term, this excess intake of calories can also cause weight gain.

Research findings show “lack of sleep can also alter appetite-regulating hormones (ghrelin which stimulates appetite and leptin, which reduces it) as well as metabolism and brain function. This causes cravings for high calorie, high sugar, high fat, and salty snacks in an attempt to boost energy levels.”

So when an insomniac finds the weight piling on, their feelings of confidence and self-esteem plummet, often sending their chronic depression into overdrive. And when the fear of gaining even more weight sets in, anxiety skyrockets as well.

Once again, leading to the perpetuation of more sleepless nights.

Also, when endless bouts of insomnia and the resulting ramifications multiply, those with psychological disorders may turn to substances such as alcohol or drugs in hopes of either inducing a calm that will allow them to sleep or easing the depression and anxiety that have accumulated.

However, many of these substances actually impair restorative sleep.

Alcohol Rehab Guide states that “the use of alcohol can prevent someone from falling into deep sleep, which is crucial to maintaining normal brain function, physical health, and emotional well-being. The toll this takes could already cause strain to one’s life and relationships.”

The result? You can probably guess it by now.

More anxiety. More depression. More eyes open and bodies awake in the middle of the night.

Treatments and Strategies for Tackling Insomnia

Exercise

South African author Mokokoma Mokhonoana states that “exercise can so easily, so quickly, and so greatly change our mood that some people would not have killed themselves, if they had run to the place to which they went to kill themselves.”

The fact is that when we make exercise part of our daily ritual, it releases many of the pent-up emotions of the day, allowing us to have a clearer perspective on life as a whole. But this is not the only benefit. It can decrease the chance of insomnia as well.

The Sleep Foundation states that “exercise triggers an increase in body temperature, and the post-exercise drop in temperature may promote falling asleep.” They also note that “exercise may also reduce insomnia by decreasing arousal, anxiety and depressive symptoms.”

Prompt relaxation by enhancing the atmosphere in your bedroom and creating a pre-sleep routine

The items in our bedroom often determine our ability to get restful sleep. For example, if you find yourself easily wakened by every creaking floorboard, purchasing a white noise machine or a small fan can often block out these ambient sounds.

Many people also recommend the sleep-inducing benefits of aromatherapy diffusers which, when filled with essential oils such as lavender, rose, and chamomile, may induce a sense of calm and relaxation.

Even more important is the temperature of your bedroom. For example, Healthline cites a 2012 study that concluded the temperature of your bedroom is one of the most important determiners of quality sleep, with 65 degrees Fahrenheit being the ideal temperature.

Bedtime routines are also beneficial. Things such as a hot bath or shower before bed often aid relaxation, and many find the habit of reading before bed beneficial, as it often helps drown out intrusive thoughts and worries.

And when these routines are accompanied by a predetermined sleep time, the likelihood of falling asleep is also enhanced.

Power down your technological devices

UT Southwestern Medical Center recommends that you decrease levels of light in your home as you near bedtime, stating that doing so “helps signal to the brain that it’s time to start winding down and prepare for sleep.”

They also warn that the blue light commonly found in phones, computers, and other technological devices is very detrimental to sleep, as it disrupts “natural sleep cycles or circadian rhythms.” They recommend either avoiding these devices entirely or at least researching the devices to see if they contain settings or apps that can help block out blue light.

Herbal remedies

Though scientific studies on the effectiveness of herbal remedies differ, many sufferers of insomnia swear that the use of things such as melatonin, valerian root, and magnesium supplements work to help you get to sleep and stay asleep. In a Healthline article titled “9 Natural Sleep Aids That May Help You Get Some Shut Eye,” from Alina Petre, Petre cites a study that found that “a combination of magnesium, melatonin, and vitamin B was effective in treating insomnia regardless of the cause.”

However, just to be safe, it’s always best to check with your regular physician before implementing any of these items into your nighttime routine.

The Bottom Line:

Author Kathy Hepinstall states of insomniacs that “those who wake at this hour feel a lonely separation from everyone but night birds and ghost crabs, never imagining the legion of kindred souls scattered in the darkness, who stare at ceilings and pace floors and look out windows and covet and worry and mourn.”

And most of the “kindred souls scattered in the darkness” are those who are struggling with mental disorders and other psychiatric conditions.

But the worst thing we that share the burden of these illnesses can do is admit defeat.

If we strive to incorporate one or more sleep-inducing strategies, we may find that eight hours can be more than the length of a workday, it can also be the number of hours of rest we get at night.

And just as sleeplessness worsens the symptoms of mental illness, so can getting a good night’s rest work to ease these disorders’ impacts.

It’s a goal worth fighting for. So don’t you dare give up.

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Sanford, NC
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