OCD and Sleep Timing

by stuart miles freedigitalphotos.net

I’ve been blogging for over seven years now, and my most-read posts, by far, are those that discuss sleep and sleep deprivation. As I’ve previously written, OCD, by its very nature, is unconducive to a good night’s sleep. How can you sleep when you have to continually check to make sure the door is locked or the stove is off? How can you relax when you need to review your entire day in your head to make sure you didn’t do anything wrong? How can you breathe easily when you find yourself ruminating on, of all things, not being able to sleep? Really, as anybody with OCD most likely knows, the possibilities are endless.

Sleep is critical to our well-being, whether we have OCD or not. But for those with OCD, it can be a vicious cycle: They can’t sleep because of their OCD and this lack of sleep intensifies the disorder.

A recent study presented at the 31st Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies suggests that the amount of sleep we get isn’t the only important factor deserving of consideration. Timing – when we sleep – also plays a vital role in our well being. In fact, in those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a late bedtime is associated with a lower perceived control of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.

When my son Dan’s OCD was severe, he would typically be up all hours of the night, pacing and giving in to whatever OCD was demanding at the time. We’d often find him on a couch (or less frequently on a floor) in the morning – fast asleep wherever he happened to collapse from exhaustion. I know this type of disordered sleep is not uncommon in those with OCD. I just never realized how detrimental it truly is.

In this article, one of the researchers, Binghamton University professor of psychology Meredith E. Coles, PhD, says:

“I always knew you were supposed to get 8 hours of sleep, but I was never told it matters when you do it. It’s been striking to me that this difference seems to be very specific to the circadian component of when you sleep. That we find that there are specific negative consequences of sleeping at the wrong times, that’s something to educate the public about.”

Coles plans on continuing her research, using light boxes to shift people’s bedtimes. She says:

“It’s one of our first efforts to actually shift their bedtimes and see if it reduces their OCD symptoms, and if this improves their ability to resist those intrusive thoughts and not develop compulsions in response to them.”

While this important research is underway, I think the best thing those with obsessive-compulsive disorder can do is to continue fighting their OCD as much as possible with exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. I know for Dan, once his OCD was under control, a good night’s sleep followed. My guess is this is true for many others as well.





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8 Responses to OCD and Sleep Timing

  1. Carol T says:

    I know my son keeps crazy hours while in college. He will be up late studying, fall asleep and take a 3 hour nap, wake up in the middle of the night and do more homework, etc. I’ve already tried to convince him to have better sleep patterns, but as we all know, our children don’t always follow our suggestions. Hopefully when he finishes college and starts working he will establish a more regular sleep pattern.

    • Hi Carol, Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately I think a lot of college kids have poor sleeping habits. It’s so frustrating for us parents who “know better,” but I do think for most people it is temporary. I appreciate your sharing!

  2. Susan c Cline says:

    My son has severe OCD and anxiety disorder. He is in CBT for the last 8 weeks, it has helped to get him out of the house some. His Dr. has him on a low mg of clonazepam which does help him to sleep. His OCD is still really bad, his therapist does not want to start him doing ERP yet, says it’s like throwing him in the deep end. I say the sooner he starts it the better???

    • Thanks so much for sharing Susan and I am sorry your son is struggling so much. I am not a therapist, but I would suggest talking in more detail with your son’s therapist about why he does not want to start ERP yet. Once a hierarchy is made, ERP therapy can be entered into gradually. That being said, maybe there are specific reasons why the therapist feels your son isn’t ready. Also, I assume this therapist treats OCD and uses ERP regularly?
      Good luck as you move forward and please keep me posted!

  3. grannyK says:

    I hate nights! I mentally go through the day and then plan the next day, starting with what time I will get up and the order in which I will get ready for work. I number them according to importance. If something interrupts me, I have to start over. If I wake up in the night, I have to do it again. It does make for a rough night. I average about 4 hours of sleep per night. I had a month of free therapy, but found it frustrating. LOTS of talking but no suggestions on what to do or where to start to help. Is it always like that at first?

  4. Hi Janet,

    This post makes me reflect a lot on what we’ve been going through with Blake. A lot of his sleep issues began with nighttime OCD rituals – repeating prayers, washing and re-washing. With his sleep/wake cycle completely reversed, it makes me curious how the time he actually is sleeping is affecting things. A lot of food for thought in this one! Thanks for sharing. – Angie

    • You’re welcome, Angie! I wonder too if Blake’s reversed sleep cycle could really be vamping up his OCD. As you say, something to keep in mind. Maybe even small, subtle changes in his sleep habits might be helpful, with the goal of getting back to a “normal” sleep pattern? Good luck and please keep me posted!

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