OCD Is Making Me Lose Sleep. What Can I Do?
Virtually everyone experiences sleepless nights every now and then. However, research has shown that people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) experience insomnia more often than others. Obsessive thoughts are to blame, and they can keep people with OCD up all night. It’s a miserable cycle, and it can interfere with the sleep schedules and overall lifestyles of people with OCD for long periods of time. It can also make their OCD worse.
Joe’s OCD would strike right as he went to bed, causing a vicious cycle that affected his overall wellbeing. In time, Joe was able to recover his lost hours of sleep by managing his OCD effectively. Here’s his story.
A College Student’s Battle with Nighttime OCD: Joe’s Story
I remember I would always dread going to sleep when I was suffering from OCD in my younger years. I would avoid bedtime, partaking in various other activities to put off the eventual loneliness of sleeping. I was terrified of being alone with my brain, as I didn’t have the confidence to deal with my OCD on my own.
Some nights it never struck, and I was able to sleep peacefully, but other nights, obsessions lingered until dawn. This led to a lack of sleep, of course, resulting in a very unhealthy lifestyle, which contributed negatively to my mental health. It’s not like I was distracting myself with beneficial activities, either. Most of the time, the late nights were filled with binge eating, mindless TV shows, and violent video games.
In other cases, my bed would be my getaway place when an obsession came on. Although torturous at times, it could also serve as a safe haven where I knew none of “my ideas” would come to fruition. It was the perfect excuse when I was younger. Whenever something came up that I knew would trigger my OCD, I could always say I wanted to take a nap or pretend I was sick to get out of it. This was just another defense mechanism to avoid my mental barriers instead of breaking through them, and “sleeping” allowed an easy escape from my fears.
If you’ve experienced some of the same things as I did, there’s hope. My first issue was thinking that my sleep issues were impossible to stop, like a runaway train. But if you stop the train bit by bit, just one gear at a time, the cycle can be stopped.
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The Unwanted Cup of Coffee: An OCD Analogy
Imagine being forced to drink a full cup of coffee before going to bed every night. You might sit in bed and stare at the ceiling, with distracting thoughts whirling in your mind for hours. You’d never get a good night’s sleep. You may have experienced this after accidentally having caffeine before bed or when trying to work or study late into the night, but imagine feeling this way every night. That’s what it can feel like for some people with OCD.
Research shows us that people with OCD have higher than normal rates of insomnia and other sleep issues like delayed sleep phase disorder. These issues are shown to be caused by obsessive thoughts, which keep people with OCD up all night without sleep.
It’s common for OCD to strike at bedtime. That’s concerning because getting a good night’s sleep is a crucial part of your health and wellbeing. There are many aspects to sleeping efficiently, one of the most important being your “sleep environment.” It takes time every night to get into the ideal sleeping position and get your surroundings all set. This includes factors like noise, lighting, bedding, and temperature.
If you have OCD, though, one compulsion can disrupt all of this, resetting the sleeping process and delaying your much-needed rest. Something as small as leaving bed to check your downstairs lights can significantly disrupt the sleep process. Compulsive behaviors and the obsessive mental processes alone can disrupt your sleep significantly, but it’s not quite that simple.
OCD and Reduced Sleep: A Vicious Cycle
Let’s say that your OCD is taking away an hour’s worth of sleep every night on average. Whether it’s a constant stream of obsessive thoughts or compulsions like checking locks, you never get to sleep at the time you want. This lack of sleep doesn’t only affect your sharpness and energy, though: it may also increase the severity of your OCD.
Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can cause an increase in OCD symptoms during daytime hours. First, OCD causes you to lose sleep, then this lack of sleep causes your OCD symptoms to intensify. Luckily, there are several things you can do to improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep.
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Stopping the Cycle: Sleep Management and OCD Treatment
OCD and sleep issues seem impossible to tackle, but there are several strategies you can implement today in order to set your sleep habits on the right track. Here are some ways to start addressing your OCD-related sleep difficulties:
- Practice good sleep hygiene. We don’t mean brushing your teeth or washing your face, though these are important. Sleep hygiene refers to the habits you build around your sleep. For example, it’s important to try to go to bed and wake up at around the same time on a regular basis. You can do this using an alarm, or you can use a daylight lamp, which may be a gentler way to signal the body that it’s time to sleep or wake.
- Create a headspace for sleep. Many of us, with or without OCD, often find ourselves scrolling through social media before bed or doing some late-night online shopping to distract ourselves. For someone with OCD, these behaviors can also trigger obsessive thoughts or cycles. It may be a nice momentary distraction, but unfortunately, these activities signal your brain to be more alert than it needs to be. This means it can take even longer for you to fall asleep after you’re done scrolling. During the day, it can also be tempting to work from bed, but that can often lead to you being tired during work (because your brain is used to sleeping in that environment) or the reverse – keeping you up at night because you’re trying to rest in your “work” environment.
- Resist bedtime compulsions. Try not to give in to compulsions during your designated sleep time, as it can become self-defeating. For example, if you commonly feel the urge to get up late at night to check and re-check your lights, locks, and windows, try to learn how to resist the urge to do so.
- Try meditation and mindfulness. Meditation has been shown to have a number of benefits for everyone, especially people dealing with OCD, anxiety, and depression. One study examined the use of mindfulness versus distraction in people with OCD: those who used mindfulness skills felt less compelled to give in to their compulsions to neutralize them, and those who used only distraction strategies saw no change. There are lots of ways to meditate and countless free resources you can use to help you get started with mindfulness techniques. As with anything, meditation can take some practice. You may benefit from starting with just a few minutes at a time and working your way up to longer sessions.
- Start treatment for OCD. Since OCD affects your sleep habits and vice versa, you can also try to improve your sleep by getting treatment for your OCD. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the most effective way to treat any theme of OCD – it’s backed by evidence and shown to improve the outcomes of people suffering from OCD.
If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD, you can schedule a free call today with the NOCD care team to learn more about how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training.
Dr. McGrath is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. He is a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advisory Boards of the International OCD Foundation, a Fellow of the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, and the author of "The OCD Answer Book" and "Don't Try Harder, Try Different."
NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCDView all therapists
Licensed Therapist, MA
I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.
Licensed Therapist, LCMHC
When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.
Licensed Therapist, MA
I have personally struggled with OCD and know what it's like to feel controlled by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, and to also overcome it using the proper therapy. I’ve been a licensed therapist since 2017. I have an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and practice Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. I know by experience how effective ERP is in treating OCD symptoms.