The Link Between Insomnia and Mental Illness

“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.”  ~ David Benioff (co-creator of Game of Thrones)

Surely you have experienced a poor night’s sleep. You wake up feeling unrested, groggy, like you got hit by a train… And the fun lasts throughout the day with slow reflexes, foggy brain, inability to concentrate, impatience, stress, worry, anxiety and even headaches. It is absolutely no surprise that sleep quality has a direct impact on your physical and mental health. Today I am going to highlight the connection between insomnia and mental illness, in hopes that those experiencing it can get the help they deserve.

Insomnia is defined as the inability to get the necessary amount of sleep to function efficiently during the daytime. It is a sleep disorder that is characterized by difficulty falling asleep, waking up often throughout the night, having trouble going back to sleep, and waking up too early in the morning. In essence, insomnia results in feeling tired upon waking. Understandably, said fatigue can lead to difficulties functioning during the daytime and have unpleasant effects on work, social and family life. 

You likely already knew all of that about insomnia. But what you may be unaware of is that insomnia can be indicative of more serious issues, including medical issues like sleep apnea, or even mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Sleep issues can even be a sign of an impending condition such as bipolar disorder. Many existing medical and mental health conditions can be worsened by sleep-related problems because lack of sleep slows recovery from mental illness. People with depression who continue to experience insomnia, for instance, are less likely to respond to treatment for depression. They are also at greater risk of relapse than those without sleeping problems.

Many people do not know there is an undeniable link between insomnia and mental health issues. More than fifty percent of insomnia cases are related to depression, anxiety or psychological stress, and many anxiety disorders are associated with difficulty sleeping. For instance, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is frequently associated with poor sleep. Panic attacks during sleep may suggest a panic disorder. Poor sleep resulting from nightmares may be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The severity of sleep issues can determine the type of mental illness a person my experience. For example, early morning wakefulness, low energy, inability to concentrate, sadness and a change in appetite or weight can be indicative of depression. A sudden dramatic decrease in sleep accompanied by an increase in energy (or the lack of need for sleep) may be a sign of mania

Poor sleep patterns can not only be indicative of mental health issues, but it can also significantly worsen them. Insomnia makes it difficult to process and react to appropriately to negative emotions. Severe sleep problems can decrease the effectiveness of certain treatments. Treatment of sleep disorders has also been studied in relationship to schizophrenia, ADHD and other mental illnesses. All of the scientific data shows the connection between medical and mental illnesses: good sleep is necessary for recovery—or prevention—in both types of conditions.

There was a research trial done where fifty-one percent of individuals who overcame depression after psychological treatment (therapy) or medication were still experiencing insomnia. Insomnia tends to persist unless it is directly targeted for treatment. Insomnia can either be short-term or long-term; short-term insomnia is very common and has many causes such as stress, travel or other life events. It can generally be relieved by simple sleep hygiene interventions such as exercise, a hot bath, warm milk or changing your bedroom environment. Long-term insomnia lasts for more than three weeks. This is when you need to be examined by a physician with a potential referral to a sleep disorder specialist (a psychiatrist, neurologist or pulmonologist who have expertise in sleep disorders) for assistance. A balanced diet, regular exercise, meditation and relaxation, good sleeping habits, herbal remedies, medication and therapy are powerful actions that can help relieve insomnia. 

Living with insomnia is hard. The constant exhaustion and inability to sleep is an ailment which may require medical attention to overcome. Remember that insomnia often comes paired with a mental illness. Only as you work through both ailments will you find lasting relief. But it is doable, and I am here to help! Please do not hesitate to contact me today!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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