We’ve all had sleepless nights worrying about life’s problems. But when those sleepless nights become the norm, it may be a sign of something more serious – a mental breakdown that’s leading to insomnia.
Insomnia itself is defined as consistently having trouble falling or staying asleep. Most adults experience short periods of insomnia at some point, often due to stress, changes in routine, jet lag, or caffeine consumption. But chronic insomnia, occurring at least three nights a week for a month or longer, could point to an underlying mental health issue.
One of the most common causes of chronic insomnia is anxiety and depression. Worry and rumination can make it very difficult to relax and fall asleep. Even after falling asleep, anxiety may cause frequent or early wakening. The lack of sleep tends to worsen mood and thinking difficulties, creating a vicious cycle.
Full-blown mental breakdowns, involving symptoms like extreme panic, paranoia, disorganized thinking and emotional extremes, will also lead to insomnia. The intense emotions and constant vigilance of a mental breakdown are not conducive to restful slumber. Lack of sleep tends to exacerbate psychiatric disorders, so insomnia and mental health issues often spiral, feeding off each other.
Besides anxiety and depression, other mental health disorders strongly linked to insomnia include:
- Bipolar disorder – During manic episodes, individuals feel energized and may go days without sleep. The depressed phase also brings insomnia and hypersomnia (excessive sleep). The lack of routine sleep can trigger or intensify manic and depressive phases.
- Schizophrenia – Insomnia is common, as schizophrenia may cause paranoia, hallucinations, social withdrawal, and other effects that impair sleep. The lack of restorative sleep tends to worsen psychiatric symptoms.
- PTSD – Recurring nightmares and flashbacks of trauma make it difficult to sleep through the night. Hypervigilance and anxiety lead to trouble falling asleep. Poor sleep contributes to irritability, lack of focus, and other PTSD symptoms.
- Personality disorders – Borderline personality disorder often includes intense, unstable moods, impulsivity, anger issues, and chronic feelings of emptiness that disrupt healthy sleep patterns. Other personality disorders like narcissistic or paranoid personality disorder also lead to insomnia.
While mental health disorders commonly cause insomnia, could the reverse also be true? Can chronic insomnia be a tipping point into a full mental breakdown?
Research does suggest that chronic sleep deprivation can eventually trigger the onset of psychiatric disorders in those already vulnerable. Here’s some of what we know about the sleep-mental health connection:
- Mood – Lack of sleep strongly affects mood regulation. After several sleepless nights, individuals report increased irritability, anxiety, sadness, and other negative emotions. Over time, this can spiral into depression and mental breakdowns.
- Cognition – Sleep is when the brain consolidates memories and new information. Without adequate sleep, thinking becomes muddled, concentration and focus decrease, and confusion sets in. This impacts everyday functioning.
- Perception – Insomnia impairs the ability to accurately perceive emotions in others. Those lacking sleep struggle reading social cues and interpreting tone/facial expressions, which strains relationships. Paranoia may also occur.
- Impulse control – Sleep deprivation is linked to poorer emotional regulation, reduced self-control, and increased impulsivity. This may fuel erratic behaviors associated with mental health crises.
- Risk factors – Chronic insomnia is tied to higher risk of suicidal thoughts and self-harm, especially in teens and young adults. The combination of disturbed sleep and mental health issues is particularly concerning.
For those predisposed to mental illness, chronic insomnia may exacerbate psychiatric symptoms, trigger relapse, or contribute to a major debilitating breakdown. An estimated 50-80% of people with depression or bipolar disorder experience insomnia during their illness. Sleep issues often appear before the onset of full mania or depressive episodes.
Getting back on a healthy sleep schedule is a key part of recovering from a mental health crisis. But it’s easier said than done, since insomnia becomes habitual the longer it goes on. Here are some tips that can help restore normal sleep patterns:
- See a doctor – A psychiatrist can diagnose any underlying illness and provide medications or sleep aids if appropriate. Therapists can also help with anxiety management skills and mental health treatment.
- Improve sleep hygiene – Keep a consistent bedtime routine, avoid screens before bed, limit caffeine and naps, and make your sleep environment comfortable and dark.
- Try relaxation techniques – Calming practices like deep breathing, guided imagery, meditation or progressive muscle relaxation can reduce anxiety and promote drowsiness.
- Consider CBT-I – Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia specifically targets unhelpful thoughts/behaviors that perpetuate sleep issues through techniques like stimulus control and sleep restriction. It’s highly effective.
- Practice patience and self-care – Recovering from insomnia requires lifestyle changes. Don’t become frustrated if progress is slow. Nurture mental health with regular exercise, social connection, healthy eating and activities you enjoy.
The connections between sleep and psychiatric issues are complex. While mental illness often causes insomnia, chronic sleep deprivation can also be a catalyst for anxiety, depression and breakdowns in those prone to mental health struggles. Seeking both medical treatment and psychological help can get insomnia under control and prevent worsening mental health. With time, proper rest and coping strategies, sleep and mood can find balance again.