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There are few things as lonely and hopeless – as depressing – as needing energy more than ever to fight depression and yet facing the severe insomnia so often coupled with the mental illness. Since sleep medications can often have negative side effects for people with depression, it seems like there is no solution to the long sleepless nights.
Over the years I struggled with depression, I often spent my days trying to keep my eyes open only to lie in bed unable to fall asleep for hours, eventually falling asleep only to wake up every few hours until morning.
Since serotonin, a chemical often abnormally low in people with depression, is intricately involved in the body’s sleep processes, insomnia is often not fully eliminated until large strides are made in depression recovery. However with time and research (and several semesters of psychology classes), I discovered several ways to reduce not only depression-associated insomnia, but also the despair it tends to bring.
The most important step in treating depression-associated insomnia is treating depression itself.
I obviously can’t wrap up this complicated process in one paragraph, but if you are struggling with depression, whether it is mild or severe, it is important to see a counselor or a therapist who can help you learn how to adjust your life and habits in a way that fosters mental health and one who can help you consider whether or not you may benefit from antidepressant drugs.
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While recovering from depression is key to recovering from the insomnia associated with it, being overtired and dealing with the despair and stress of sleepless nights can often make it harder to take the difficult steps toward depression recovery. Like most things with mental illness, it is a bit of a catch-22. However, it is not impossible or hopeless and you have the power to do quite a bit to alleviate the suffering.
First, it is important to lessen the guilt and the anxiousness about being awake.
I’m sure you’ve been there: lying in bed, staring at the clock, and berating yourself because it is three o’clock in the morning and you are still awake. There are several ways to deal with this, but one of the key things to realize is you can still become refreshed by resting even when you can’t fall asleep.
Shift your focus from falling asleep to finding peace and rest.
For me, this meant getting rid of my clock and keeping a book and a small candle by my bed so I could read a cheesy, relaxing novel in a dimly lit environment until I was able to fall back asleep. On nights when I was still struggling to fall asleep, I would often make some hot chamomile tea and meditate or pray.
As a side note, try to avoid eating regularly when you wake up because eating is closely involved with your body’s sleep and wake cycles and it can trick your body into waking up at that time regularly. If you find you are starving and it is keeping you awake, grab some warm milk and a small snack. Also consider adding a snack before you go to bed or increasing your daily food intake if you are still hungry.
In addition, I found music and relaxing YouTube videos were huge aids in calming my spirits! For me, shifting my goal from sleep to rest took a huge burden off my shoulders, which not only helped quiet some of the stress keeping me awake, but also left me feeling more refreshed in the morning since I was using my waking hours to relax instead of stress.
Second, it is important to set yourself up for success during the day.
Practice good sleep hygiene: avoid bright lights and electronic screens before you go to bed, use your bed mainly for sleeping. Do not eat food that is hard to digest right before bedtime, do eat carbohydrates and milk/turkey before heading to bed, exercise about 5-6 hours before you go to sleep (if you are healthy enough).
Relax and clear your mind right before you tuck in for the night with some journaling, meditating, praying, light reading, yoga, etc – whatever helps you release the stress of the day.
Lastly, don’t lose hope!
It often seems like you will never be able to relax and sleep again – a disheartening thought – but you will find healing with time. Bring up this struggle with your therapist and talk through it with him/her – it may not seem like a huge, traumatic problem but it often lays a heavy burden of stress on you and talking through it can be extremely helpful.
While you can discuss your specific situation with your therapist, psychiatrist and general practitioner, make sure you are careful to fully discuss your history of mental illness before discussing a prescription for sleep medication since you may need to be closely monitored for adverse side effects even for over-the-counter medications.
For me, nights have gone from something I dreaded to something I look forward to, and I hope some of these steps can help you find the same peace in-spite of insomnia.
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