Insomnia: The Mind, Body, and Emotion Connection

As much as 40% of all adults in the world experience insomnia in the course of the year. In the US alone, sleep sufferers are over 70 million, 60% of which have chronic disorders. These numbers are based on various studies conducted by several experts and research institutions.

A common sleep complaint, insomnia is characterized by difficulty falling asleep, difficulty maintaining sleep, and waking up too early in the morning. It is generally categorized as either acute (short-term) or chronic (ongoing). Insomnia has several known causes that include stress, sleeping habit, lifestyle, diet, mental disorder, medication, and medical conditions.

While primarily defined as a sleep disorder, the effects of insomnia extend beyond the sleep period. Below are its effects on the individual’s cognition, emotion, and sensory process.

Insomnia and cognitive impairment

There are several adverse effects of insomnia to cognition, foremost of which are lowered alertness and slowed reaction time. Sleep deprivation makes it more difficult to focus and pay attention, hindering your ability to perform logical and complex tasks. This poses a serious problem when driving, working or doing tasks that require a quick response. Because sleepiness impairs judgement and vigilance, it’s harder for you to make the right decisions because your ability to assess situations and behaviors are compromised. Many car accidents are reportedly due to driving while sleepy. In fact, you don’t have to fall asleep on the wheel to be a danger to yourself and others. Drowsiness due to sleep deprivation can be as dangerous as drunk driving.

Linked to attention deficiency is disrupted working memory. Both attention and working memory are connected to the functioning of the frontal brain, which is strengthened during sleep. Insomnia makes your cognitive domain vulnerable, disrupting your brain’s ability to consolidate new information into memories. The common experience is forgetfulness. Sleep deprivation weakens memory, making it easier for your to forget or misplace things. Sleep functions as storing process, embedding what you’ve learned and experienced during the day into your short-term memory. Because your sleep negatively impacts your short-term memory, your long-term memory is affected as well.

Among children and teens who experience sleep problems, the long-term cognitive effects can include stunted learning abilities. Students who can focus as well are less able to pick up and process information, undermining their learning efficiency. Sleepiness can also lead to hyperactivity among children, which affects their ability to focus.  Attention, memory, and learning are interrelated.

Taken together, these cognitive effects of insomnia present a challenge to individual performance at work, school, and daily tasks.

Insomnia and emotional health

You probably have firsthand experience of the emotional changes of people experiencing insomnia. Missing even just one night of good night’s sleep can make anyone more irritable, short-tempered, and unable to cope with stress the next day. Sleep is a mood regulator, and insomnia can dramatically affect your emotional health. Unresolved, insomnia can lead to serious mental problems like depression and psychiatric disorders. According to studies, people with insomnia are likely to develop major depression associated with sleep problems.

While everyone can experience insomnia, women are affected slightly more than men, according to the Society for Women’s Health Research. This information is supported by a poll which reveals that 63% of women reported insomnia for several nights a week, compared with 54% among men. While inconclusive, one can deduce from available data that women have a slightly higher risk of experiencing the emotional effects of insomnia.

The combination of mood and insomnia can produce an unhealthy cycle. Insomnia can aggravate mood and vice-versa. For example, chronic insomnia increases an individual’s risk of developing mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. People who experience the different types of insomnia, from idiopathic to psychosocial, are more likely to experience psychiatric disorders if sleep problems are unresolved. Those who sleep poorly and have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety are advised to discuss treatments with their doctor to avoid further problems.

The sensory process of an insomniac

The effects of insomnia to the body are apparent in impaired sensory processes or one’s ability to make sense of the world. Sensory processing is the body’s means to process information from the five senses, namely vision, smell, auditory, touch, and taste. It also includes the sense of movement and position (proprioception). While sensory processing disorder (SPD) can be a result of insomnia, it has to be distinguished from disabilities like blindness or deafness. People with SPD are still able to receive sensory information; the problem is that information is processed in a way that can cause distress, unease, and confusion.

Sleep-deprived children and adolescents have a high risk of developing sensory processing disorder. Because sleep plays an essential role in the restoration of the mind and body, poor sleep negatively impacts almost all areas of functioning and development. Some of the indications of poor sleep patterns among children and adolescents include restlessness, waking up at night, inconsistent sleeping patterns, and taking longer than 20 to 30 minutes minutes to fall asleep.

If your child is suffering from insomnia, this could be an indicator of sensory processing disorder. Overstimulation or hyperactivity is a common manifestation. Sometimes, the events of the day are understimulating that the child appears sluggish or lethargic. Resistance to bathing, frequent changing of positions on the bed, and eating before bedtime can be indicators of SPD related to the sense of touch, position and taste, respectively.

Sensory triggers for adults may be similar with children. Hypersensitivity to the point that it interferes with your functioning can be an indication. Assess if you’re easily bothered by sounds, textures or smell. Lack of sleep can heighten these triggers, making them physically and emotionally unbearable.

Sleep can be improved in both quantity and quality through lifestyle changes and/or proper medication. Remember that while sleep needs vary, the rule of thumb remains seven to eight hours at night. Combined with exercise and a healthy diet, good sleep should result in a positive disposition, more energy throughout the day, and increased efficiency in tasks and leisurely activities.

Guest Author Bio: Aby Nicole League is a qualitative researcher and a passionate writer. She writes mostly about health, psychology, technology, and marketing.


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