Lying awake, unable to sleep. Thinking about all the reasons you need to sleep – but can’t. Feeling increasingly irritated, negative and helpless. Staring at the clock by the bedside: 2 am, then 3 am.
Estimates are that 80% of people with depression have trouble sleeping. (Another 15% of people with depression have trouble with sleeping too much.) Research by the National Institutes of Health cites several reasons why insomnia can cause or worsen depression:
- Insomnia decreases the quality of life. When you don’t get enough sleep, your energy decreases, you’re more distractible and emotions are triggered more easily.
- Lying there in the dark makes it easy to ruminate. And who obsesses on positive thoughts and experiences? Our focus returns to worries, doubts, past problems, etc. It is literally depressing.
- The feeling of wanting to sleep but being unable to makes us feel powerless. An experience of helplessness and hopelessness can lead to depression.
- Insomnia affects our rhythms and neurobiology in ways that are depressive.
Insomnia is both a symptom and a root of many problems. Research hasn’t established that insomnia actually causes depression, but there is a clear enough link to establish that poor sleep has a negative effect on emotional health. The reverse is also true: waking up well-rested helps us to feel restored and ready to take on the day.
Almost everyone has trouble sleeping on occasion; the problem usually has to persist for about a month before meeting the clinical definition of insomnia. We know that insomnia affects 10-15% of adults in American society, and that it is considerably more common in men than in women.
All this is a serious problem. Next we’ll take a look at what to do about it.