Once viewed only as symptoms, sleep problems may actually contribute to psychiatric disorders.
Americans are notoriously sleep deprived, but those with psychiatric conditions are even more likely to be yawning or groggy during the day. Chronic sleep problems affect 50% to 80% of patients in a typical psychiatric practice, compared with 10% to 18% of adults in the general U.S. population. Sleep problems are particularly common in patients with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Traditionally, clinicians treating patients with psychiatric disorders have viewed insomnia and other sleep disorders as symptoms. But studies in both adults and children suggest that sleep problems may raise risk for, and even directly contribute to, the development of some psychiatric disorders. This research has clinical application, because treating a sleep disorder may also help alleviate symptoms of a co-occurring mental health problem.
The brain basis of a mutual relationship between sleep and mental health is not yet completely understood. But neuroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.
So which came first the chicken or the egg?
The first sign of any trouble came when my son started having trouble sleeping. We didn’t even know it was an issue for a long time….
One afternoon he came to me and said “My friend said it’s not normal to lay awake for hours before falling asleep, how long does it take you to fall asleep?” During the discussion that followed I learned that he was laying awake for hours each night before falling asleep and was waking often during the night.
A couple trips to the doctors office lead us to try melatonin and then Hydroxyzine (an antihistamine) both helped temporarily but didn’t fix the problem.
Overtime I came to learn that he was laying in bed thinking about things while he couldn’t sleep. Thoughts were playing over and over in his mind and he began to have a lot of fear and worry over why he couldn’t get his mind to stop thinking.
Getting adequate sleep was a struggle for him and remains that way even today. I can almost predict trouble heading our way by the amount of sleep he gets (or doesn’t get).
Unfortunately there has been no easy solution to this problem. We’ve tried various medications with varying degrees of success and failure. Exercise, diet and sleep hygiene techniques have not lead to a alleviation of symptoms.
Many nights we’ve both been up all night while he tries to sleep, paces the floor or eventually heads out to walk the streets because he is so restless.
I know how I feel when I don’t get enough sleep for just a night or two. I get irritable and it is hard for me to think clearly. Dealing with that night after night, day after day is not something I would wish on anyone. Oh to be able to wave a magic wand and be able to make his body fall asleep and break the downward cycle, because it is a cycle. The less sleep he gets the more anxious he becomes, with more anxiety it becomes harder to fall asleep.
What started the cycle? How can we break it? Those are questions we are still trying to find the answers to.