By Rose Lugo
Sleep is one of the most important things for maintaining a healthy mind. Getting enough rest each night can help to maintain steady energy levels and manage emotional states throughout the day. This is why difficulty with sleep can be such a stressful issue to have. Without that period of recovery at the end of the day, the mental wear and tear of everyday life will start to accumulate, and every task and event can feel like too much to handle.
When issues with sleep persist for an extended period, this may call for the diagnosis of a sleep disorder. Insomnia is one of the most common of these disorders and is marked by symptoms such as the inability to fall or stay asleep, not feeling rested in the morning, feeling tired during the day and difficulty focusing on even simple tasks (Mayo Clinic, n. d.).
Causes of sleep deprivation
Difficulty falling or staying asleep can be caused by several factors. While it is possible for sleep difficulty to exist on its own, it is very often caused by something else.
Stress is one of the most prevalent causes of insomnia. Worrying about any number of things in one’s life, such as work, school or other responsibilities, can prevent the mind from settling down in the evening. This mental overactivity can hinder attempts at getting a good night’s rest. Physical stress can also manifest in the form of poor sleep habits, such as going to bed at varying times, looking at screens before bed or doing work tasks while in bed. These can interrupt the body from following its natural rhythms of wakefulness and sleep (Mayo Clinic, n. d.).
Studies have also found links between certain mental health conditions and insomnia. Anxiety and depression are especially strong predictors of insomnia. With depression in particular, difficulty sleeping is one of the criteria for receiving a diagnosis (Goldstein et al., 2019). Other conditions, such as ADHD, have less direct, but still significant effects on sleep quality (Fernandez-Mendoza et al., 2021).
Sleeplessness and age
Research has found links between age and sleep difficulties. Adolescents and older adults are some of the major age groups that report difficulties with sleep (Fernandez-Mendoza et al., 2021; Goldman-Meller et al., 2014).
In adolescents, sleeplessness may be caused by a mixture of stress linked to the growing responsibilities one takes on as they transition from childhood, and the physical changes occurring during this time. Research has identified adolescence as a key time frame for the development of insomnia symptoms that may persist into adulthood if left untreated, especially among teenage girls, teens from minority ethnic groups and teens of low socioeconomic status (Fernandez-Mendoza et al., 2021).
In adults, stress continues to be a significant factor in insomnia symptom prevalence. A staggering 50% of older adults report having difficulty falling or staying asleep. This statistic is concerning, given the plethora of health issues that are linked to poor sleep patterns, such as cardiovascular diseases and respiratory disorders (Black et al., 2014).
How is difficulty sleeping treated?
If sleep difficulty is the result of another issue, such as a mental health condition, treatment of that condition such as psychotherapy and medication may improve sleep. For some, however, sleep difficulties may persist. In these cases, sleep aid medications may be prescribed. While these pharmaceuticals can be effective at inducing sleep, they do not necessarily mend the issue causing sleep dysfunction. Furthermore, there is a possibility that the individual taking them will develop a dependence on them. They can also cause some unpleasant side effects, such as memory loss, headaches and changes in cognition and behavior (Rusch et al., 2019). Individuals who have poor experiences with these available treatments may hope to turn to an alternative. This is where mindfulness and meditation may be helpful.
How can mindfulness and meditation help?
Researchers have identified the potential benefits of mindfulness and meditation practices in treating insomnia symptoms. The effects of these practices have been recognized in brain scans.
One study found results that were a bit perplexing, but highlight the complex benefits of mindfulness. In this study (Goldstein et al., 2019), the researchers predicted that mindfulness would improve insomnia symptoms by reducing cortical activity, which was previously interpreted as the brain overactivity that could prevent restful sleep. While the participants in the study reported significant improvements in their symptoms even months after they underwent the treatment, the researchers did not note any decrease in their cortical activity. The researchers explained this phenomenon by pointing to the concept of calm and nonjudgmental awareness prevalent in mindfulness teachings. These practices can help people observe their lives while managing emotions and retaining a sense of peace, which can in turn improve sleep. Other research points to the long-term effects of mindfulness. The techniques learned in mindfulness training can change the way participants view their sleep practices and alter their habits for the better (Rusch et al., 2019). ••
Rose Lugo is an intern for Matthew’s Mindful Moment.
Black, D. S., O’Reilly, G. A., Olmstead, R., Breen, E. C., & Irwin, M. R. (2014). Mindfulness-based intervention for prodromal sleep disturbances in older adults: Design and methodology of a randomized controlled trial. Contemporary Clinical Trials, 39(1), 22–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.CCT.2014.06.013
Goldman-Mellor, S., Gregory, A. M., Caspi, A., Harrington, H., Parsons, M., Poulton, R., & Moffitt, T. E. (2014). Mental Health Antecedents of Early Midlife Insomnia: Evidence from a Four-Decade Longitudinal Study. Sleep, 37(11), 1767–1775.
Goldstein, M. R., Turner, A. D., Dawson, S. C., Segal, Z. V., Shapiro, S. L., Wyatt, J. K., Manber, R., Sholtes, D., & Ong, J. C. (2019). Increased high-frequency NREM EEG power associated with mindfulness-based interventions for chronic insomnia: Preliminary findings from spectral analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 120, 12–19. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.JPSYCHORES.2019.02.012
Fernandez-Mendoza, J., Bourchtein, E., Calhoun, S., Puzino, K., Snyder, C. K., He, F., Vgontzas, A. N., Liao, D., & Bixler, E. (2021). Natural history of insomnia symptoms in the transition from childhood to adolescence: population rates, health disparities, and risk factors. Sleep, 44(3), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1093/SLEEP/ZSAA187
Mayo Clinic. (n. d.) Insomnia.
Rusch, H. L., Rosario, M., Levison, L. M., Olivera, A., Livingston, W. S., Wu, T., & Gill, J. M. (2019). The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1445(1), 5–16. https://doi.org/10.1111/NYAS.13996