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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is associated with a long list of symptoms and tendencies including intrusive thoughts, obsessions, and compulsive behaviors and rituals. Many people with OCD also suffer from anxiety or depression as these thoughts and compulsions become mentally overwhelming. It’s no wonder, then, that OCD may also interfere with your ability to achieve quality sleep.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the effects of OCD on sleep, how lack of sleep may worsen OCD symptoms, and what you can do to improve your sleep quality.
The Relationship Between OCD and Insomnia
OCD is a mental health disorder characterized by unreasonable obsessions, thoughts, and fears that trigger compulsive behaviors. Examples of OCD include a fear of contamination or germs, an obsessive need to organize or rearrange items in a particular order, or persistent negative thoughts involving violence or sexuality.
There are different types and severities of OCD. Some people can overcome these obsessive thoughts and behaviors using cognitive-behavioral therapy, group therapy, or an online therapy program, while others need therapy plus medication. Intrusive thoughts and fears aren’t the only symptoms of OCD. Increased isolation is common and can lead to feelings of loneliness or even depression. OCD can also impact your personal and professional life, mood, and overall health.
Another thing commonly affected by OCD is sleep. Over 70 million people suffer from insomnia, which is defined as the inability to fall and stay asleep. Insomnia is triggered by a variety of factors including certain medical conditions, major life changes, stress, and poor sleep habits. Because many people with OCD also suffer from depression, anxiety, and extreme stress, sleep troubles are a common side effect. The relationship between OCD and insomnia is even more complex given that lack of sleep can worsen depression symptoms, anxious thoughts, and paranoia.
How OCD Negatively Impacts Sleep
We already mentioned that OCD is characterized by intrusive thoughts. These thoughts combined with the overwhelming need to perform certain behaviors and rituals (compulsions) can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep. Many people with OCD find themselves lying awake at night, tortured by nagging thoughts. Some people may even get out of bed to indulge their compulsions and try to ease their racing minds. For example, if you can’t shake the feeling that you forgot to lock the front door or close the garage, you may need to get out of bed and check these areas multiple times.
Harm OCD involves constant fear and worry that something bad will happen to a loved one. Individuals with this type of OCD may become obsessed with checking that their partner or children are safe in bed before going to sleep. Persistent thoughts of someone breaking into the home or a fire could make it impossible to fall asleep, trigger nightmares, or cause frequent awakenings. Individuals with order and symmetry OCD may perform dozens of compulsions before bed, wasting valuable time that should be spent sleeping. Organizing objects, cleaning, and performing safety checks can all result in lost sleep.
How to Improve Insomnia Symptoms Caused by OCD
In order to ease insomnia symptoms triggered by OCD, you need to address and treat both conditions simultaneously. While treating your OCD can reduce the amount and frequency of your obsessions and compulsions, improving your sleep routine and habits is another important step in easing insomnia symptoms.
If you’re not sleeping well and facing an OCD diagnosis, you’ve likely developed some pretty negative feelings about sleep. The idea of lying awake in bed or staying up late performing obsessive rituals can create even more anxiety as bedtime grows near. Your fear of not being able to sleep will only make it harder to fall and stay asleep, creating a vicious, unhealthy cycle.
One way to combat this is to change your thoughts surrounding sleep. CBT, or cognitive-behavioral therapy, is a type of therapy used to treat a host of mental health conditions including OCD, depression, and anxiety. It’s also been proven beneficial for treating insomnia. By changing your thoughts about sleep and replacing negative beliefs with more positive and realistic ones, you can reduce your anxiety about falling asleep. CBT is commonly used to reduce negative thoughts, obsessions, and fears in OCD patients as well.
Create a Quality Sleep Environment
It can be difficult for individuals with OCD to relax enough for sleep. Intrusive negative thoughts, constant worrying, and the overwhelming need to perform rituals can create a state of hyperarousal and anxiety. One way to better prepare for sleep and relax enough to fall asleep is by creating a quality sleep environment.
This starts by investing in quality bedding including a comfortable mattress and pillow and lightweight sheets and blankets that prevent night sweats. Next, remove any overstimulating electronics from your room including digital clocks, televisions, and computers. Using these devices (along with your smartphone) before bed prevents your brain from releasing the sleep hormone melatonin, which is needed for achieving deep, quality sleep. Instead, opt for writing in a journal, reading a book, or performing a calming meditation. Drinking chamomile tea, using relaxing essential oils, or taking a warm soothing bath are also great ways to prepare for sleep and reduce anxiety at night.
Reduce light and noise disturbances as well by using a sound machine or oscillating fan, sleep mask, and room darkening shades. Remember, your bedroom is for sleep and sex only. Reserve all other activities including working, eating, and watching television outside the bedroom.
Adopt a Healthy Sleep Routine
This piece of advice for easing insomnia symptoms can be tricky for those with OCD because it involves adopting routine behaviors and habits before bed. Things like going to bed at the same time each night, turning off your phone 60 minutes before bed, and meditating are all great ways to prepare for sleep and signal to both your brain and body that it’s time for bed.
When using this technique, proceed with caution. Creating a sleep routine may be a slippery slope for someone with OCD who is already obsessed with performing certain rituals and compulsions. A therapist can help you adopt positive sleep habits without letting them morph into new obsessions.
Quality Sleep May Help Ease OCD Symptoms
The connection between OCD and sleep is a complicated one. Many OCD symptoms can make it difficult to achieve quality sleep and without deep sleep, you may notice your OCD symptoms getting worse. By treating both conditions at once, you can ease anxious thoughts, reduce compulsions, and finally achieve the restorative sleep you need to face life (and your OCD diagnosis) head-on.
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