This Is What Happens to Your Body When You’re Experiencing Insomnia

And how to fix it for good.

When it comes to sleep, there are two types of people: There are those who view sleep as a blissful activity, and then there are those who view sleep as a stressful task. If you fall into the second category, then it’s a possibility that you suffer from a sleep disorder like insomnia, which can make it near possible to have a good night’s rest.

The issue is that insomnia doesn’t just affect your ability to sleep—it also takes a toll on your mind and body. “The most studied consequences of sleep loss are changes in mood, cognitive complaints, and performance impairments,” sleep psychologist Sarah Silverman, Psy.D., tells HelloGiggles. “We also know that those who experience chronic sleep deprivation may have decreased immune function and a lower ability to properly regulate metabolism and blood glucose.” If you’re noticing that you’re becoming more irritable, having trouble focusing, or making mistakes at work, it could be attributed to sleep loss.

However, not only does poor sleep make you feel lethargic and tired, but it can also play into the development of certain diseases. According to Healthline, lack of sleep can affect your blood pressure, lead to cardiovascular disease, and increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke. This happens because, over time, higher blood glucose levels (which can happen because of poor sleep) can damage your blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart. The longer this happens, the higher a person’s chances are of developing heart disease. The CDC states it clearly: Adults who sleep less than seven hours each night are more likely to experience health problems, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

But while sleep is clearly essential when it comes to maintaining your physical health, it’s also closely linked to your mental health. University of Pennsylvania assistant professor Jennifer R. Goldschmied, Ph.D., calls the relationship between sleep and mental health “complicated,” because while poor sleep can trigger mood changes, sleep disorders like insomnia are also caused by certain psychiatric disorders. “We know that sleep disturbance is a symptom of most psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety, but it may also precede and predict the onset of those disorders,” Dr. Goldschmied explains. “It’s important, then, to prioritize sleep, just like diet and exercise, for a healthy life. And if you do notice a significant change in your sleep that’s affecting your functioning in the daytime, contact a doctor or therapist.” 

But how do you know when it’s time to see a doctor for your insomnia? When it goes on for weeks on end. “Chronic insomnia is defined as having difficulty sleeping three or more nights per week for three months or longer,” Dr. Silverman says. “A classic ‘vicious cycle of insomnia’ might look like having a negative thought about sleep (e.g. ‘I’m never going to sleep tonight!’), which leads to a negative behavior (e.g. lying in bed awake, tossing/turning), and, in turn, leads to negative emotions around sleep (e.g. frustration, worry).” Does this sound familiar? Most of us are probably guilty of doing this on occasion, but it can be dangerous to our bodies. “This can lead to a physiological response, such as increased heart rate, shallow breathing, or feeling on a high alert,” she says.

That’s why Dr. Silverman suggests learning how to change one area of your life to help alter behaviors that negatively reinforce poor sleep habits. And one of the ways you can do this is through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for insomnia. According to Dr. Silverman, this is an evidence-based, non-medication treatment shown to significantly improve sleep quality. “It’s the first-line treatment and gold standard therapy for insomnia,” she says. “In a nutshell, this treatment helps you learn how to better manage your sleep with cognitive and behavioral strategies without having to resort to sleep medications or over-the-counter sleep aids. The core principle of cognitive behavior therapy is the idea that what you think and do affects the way you feel.”

However, if therapy is not an option right now, there are other simple rules you can follow to assist your body in the sleeping process. “Keep a consistent sleep schedule, especially a consistent wake time—even on weekends and holidays—and give yourself enough time to sleep,” Dr. Goldschmied adds. Limiting your TV time before bed, putting your phone on the opposite side of your bedroom, and reducing your caffeine intake can also help prevent insomnia.

While it might feel hard to make these changes, just know that it’s possible. So, put your phone down, turn off Netflix, and catch some z’s. And remember, there’s no need to panic if you think you’re experiencing insomnia, because there are plenty of resources available to help you finally think of sleep as a blissful activity.  

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