Is Insomnia a Mental or Physical Disorder?

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Author Name: Beth Rush
Date: Friday June 28, 2019

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You toss. You turn. You count sheep — and nevertheless, sleep remains elusive. You’d do anything to get some rest. Why is it so hard? 

Sometimes, you can pinpoint the cause of your restlessness. Perhaps you are under the gun at work, or you’re experiencing trouble in your romantic relationship. Other times, it can be challenging to discern why the sandman doesn’t come, which begs the question — is insomnia a mental or physical disorder? 

Physical Disorders That Can Cause Insomnia

Many physical ailments can make it challenging to catch your Zzz’s. If you have a diagnosis, talk to your physician about lifestyle changes and medications that may help. If you suspect an underlying cause for your tossing and turning, make an appointment for a checkup. Any or all of the following conditions can leave you counting sheep:

  • Allergies or respiratory problems: Have you ever tried to fall asleep with a bad head cold only to have your stuffy nose keep you awake? If you have allergies, you may face a similar situation more often. Some individuals also suffer from a breathing problem known as obstructive sleep apnea. If you have this disorder, you stop breathing several times during the night, which causes you to awaken. While this reflex occurs to keep you alive, it can leave you feeling miserable and unrested. You may need a CPAP machine to find relief. 
  • Chronic pain: It’s challenging to relax enough to drift off when every position feels like pins and needles. If you have any form of arthritis, chronic back pain or fibromyalgia, physical discomfort can make sleep elusive. 
  • Neurological conditions: Some neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease and specific traumatic brain injuries render sleep problematic. 
  • Endocrine disorders: If your hormones are out of whack, you might find it challenging to go under at night. Fortunately, your doctor can typically diagnose this issue with a blood test, and medications to balance your levels can bring relief. 

The Link Between Mental Health and Insomnia 

It isn’t surprising that some mental disorders also cause trouble sleeping. Indeed, fully 50% of insomnia cases result from anxiety, depression or psychological stress. Because of the complex nature of these conditions, you might find yourself facing a chicken-or-egg scenario. Did your depression cause your sleeplessness, or did your inability to rest leave you feeling flat and unenergetic? 

If you suspect a mental illness contributes to your insomnia, talk to your doctor. They may refer you to a counselor who can help. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques can ease sleeplessness in many individuals. Your therapist can also help you process the emotions that provoke your stress response so that relaxation comes more readily. 

Lifestyle Factors That Can Cause Sleeplessness 

Specific factors in your lifestyle can also leave you lying awake at night. Some of these remain within your control, while others are more challenging for which to compensate. However, making the right adjustments can help you find relief: 

  • Shift work: If you work the second or third shift, it can take your body a while to adjust. The problem becomes more complicated if you work a varying shift consisting of some daytime work with the rest in the evening. If at all possible, strive to achieve consistency in your schedule. 
  • Alcohol or drugs: Here is a factor you can control. Many people turn to a nightcap to help ease themselves into dreamland. However, while wine or whiskey will help you to fall asleep, it can cause wakefulness during the night. Some illicit drugs, such as cocaine, can keep you awake for days on end, and prescription medications can sometimes prove problematic, too. 
  • Electronic devices: The blue light emitted by computer screens and even television sets can interfere with your production of melatonin, a crucial sleep hormone. Try to keep such devices out of your bedroom. Switch to a standard alarm clock instead of relying on your cellphone. 
  • Distractions: Some people are naturally lighter sleepers than others. For these folks, sounds that others might snore through rouse them. If you fall into this category, try experimenting with earplugs and eye coverings to eliminate outside light and sound. 

Treating Insomnia Holistically

If you struggle to fall or stay asleep, you need relief fast. While your best resource remains your family doctor, if you lack insurance or prefer to try natural methods first, the following practices can help: 

  • Set a schedule: Establish a time for waking up and going to sleep, then adhere to it. While it seems logical to sleep in a bit if you lie awake at night, doing so will only make it more challenging to get Zzz’s the following evening. 
  • Try valerian tea: Valerian is a herb well-known for making people slightly drowsy. However, it does take time to build up in your body, so if you select this method, give it time to work. Other herbs you might try include skullcap, chamomile, lavender or passionflower.
  • Take melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that your body releases to signal it to go to rest. However, you can find drops and tablets at nearly any health food store. Try a bit under your tongue approximately 30 minutes before you usually lie down. 
  • Get some sun and exercise: While you want to give yourself at least two to three hours between your workout and bedtime, morning activity can make sleep come more readily. Exposure to light also helps regulate sleep cycles. If you are a shift worker who rarely sees the daylight, try investing in a lamp developed for people with seasonal affective disorder to mimic the sun’s rays. 

Is Insomnia a Mental or Physical Disorder? It Can Be Both 

Insomnia can have both mental and physical causes — only you and your doctor can pinpoint what makes you restless. However, relief is available, so get started on your journey of discovery and find the sleep you need. 

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