Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Sleep and OCD: How to Win The Battle for Better Sleep

7 min read
Patrick McGrath, PhD

Most people experience sleepless nights every once in a while. However, research has shown that those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have higher-than-normal rates of insomnia. It can be hard to know where to start to improve your restless nights. 

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to rectifying sleep issues when it comes to OCD, and people should speak with their doctors or OCD therapists to find the best solutions when applicable. However, if you’re looking for ways to improve your sleep quality, keep reading to find a few of our best sleep tips for those with OCD. 

OCD and Sleep

But before we get into the solutions, you’re probably wondering what, exactly, is the connection between sleep issues and OCD. Let me explain.

Does OCD cause insomnia?

Research shows that people with OCD struggle with increased rates of insomnia compared to those without OCD. But that doesn’t necessarily mean OCD causes insomnia. How can that be?

Well, it’s a tricky relationship. 

For one thing, a lot of times people who have OCD also have another condition such as depression or anxiety, just to name a couple of examples. And these conditions can contribute to trouble sleeping.

Of course, even if OCD doesn’t cause your insomnia, there are numerous explanations for why OCD can contribute to your sleepless nights. Here are just a couple:

A key component of OCD is obsessions. These are persistent and unwanted thoughts, images, or urges that can be really frightening and disturbing. Living with these obsessions all day, and especially before bed, may not exactly put you in a restful, relaxed place to drift off to dreamland. 

Then there’s the fact that certain subtypes of OCD could involve a fear of not getting enough sleep, never waking up, having terrifying dreams, being harmed while they’re sleeping, never being able to fall asleep, or other worries that impact bedtime habits and sleep hygiene directly. In turn, they may engage in compulsive behavior or repetitive actions that in turn rob them of quality sleep. For instance, someone might repeatedly note the time throughout the night, monitor their breathing or heart rate, check their locks, or engage in similar disruptive compulsions. This, again, is not conducive to a full night’s rest.

Do these experiences sound familiar? Learn how you can overcome them.

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How to get better sleep if you have OCD

Sometimes treatment for your sleep issue will be specific to a medical issue you’re dealing with. If it’s anxiety-related, for instance, working with a mental health professional to address the root cause of your anxiety may help you get better shut-eye. Likewise, sleep apnea and other medical disorders that affect sleep will require specific treatment with a doctor and maybe even medication

That said, it’s important to make sure you’re also getting the proper treatment for OCD. Because while there are lots of ways that people try to cope with OCD, the treatment that is proven to work for most people is a specific type of therapy known as Exposure and Response Prevention therapy (ERP). While ERP is tailored to each individual specifically, the key thing to know about it is that it’s vastly different from traditional talk therapy. It’s highly behavior-based, meaning that you and a trained therapist work together so you’re deliberately exposing yourself to the thoughts and triggers you’re trying to run from, and then building up a tolerance for difficult thoughts and emotions, without engaging in compulsions. In time, you can even begin to experience fewer obsessions and less distress as a result.

Beyond that, there are some good sleep habits that everyone can find helpful. Here are the tools to keep in your better-sleep arsenal:

Practice good sleep hygiene 

One of the first steps in getting a better night’s sleep while navigating OCD is practicing good sleep hygiene. We don’t mean brushing your teeth or washing your face — though these are important rituals too. 

Sleep hygiene refers to the patterns you build around your sleep habits. 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 

Make sure that you have a designated area just for sleeping. It sounds obvious — of course our beds are meant for sleeping! But many of us, those with OCD and those without, often find ourselves perusing Instagram or Facebook before bed, checking notifications 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. Make sure you’re limiting your screen time before bed to help send the right signals to your brain, and try to keep your sleep space dedicated just for sleep.

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 doing the opposite — keeping you up at night because you’re trying to rest in your “work” environment. 

Don’t give in to sleep-stealing compulsions

Try not to give in to compulsions during your designated sleep time, because it can become self-defeating. For example, if you feel the urge to get up and do something in your house, 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 and meditation versus the use of distraction in 30 patients 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. Build this time into your nightly sleep hygiene routine! 

Herbal remedies and supplements 

As with any supplement or herbal remedy, it’s important to check with your doctor to ensure that it won’t interfere with any medications you’re taking or treatments you’re using. However, many people with OCD may find melatonin and valerian root beneficial for sleeplessness. You can find melatonin or valerian supplements at most pharmacies or health stores, and you can also drink various herbal teas to promote relaxation, including chamomile, valerian, lavender and more.

Take it one step at a time

As with any journey toward improved health, your path to a peaceful night’s sleep might take some trial and error. Be patient with yourself, consult with your physician or therapist, and take each win as a victory. OCD can make your nights unbearable, but you can claim your sleep back. All it takes is a little practice and finding the right techniques for you. 

If you are suffering from OCD and you think you need help, “I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment.” ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. Let NOCD show you how ERP therapy has proven effective in around two thirds of people with OCD.

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NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCD

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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

Network Clinical Training Director

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.

Gary Vandalfsen

Gary Vandalfsen

Licensed Therapist, Psychologist

I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist for over twenty five years. My main area of focus is OCD with specialized training in Exposure and Response Prevention therapy. I use ERP to treat people with all types of OCD themes, including aggressive, taboo, and a range of other unique types.

Madina Alam

Madina Alam

Director of Therapist Engagement

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.

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