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Addiction and Sleep

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Written for Recovery Magazine on January 7, 2009 by Emily Battaglia

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Individuals who are recovering from addiction often experience significant sleep disturbances. Some of these problems persist only for the first few months in recovery, some for years after abstinence begins.

Scientific studies have recorded the major sleep difficulties experienced by recovering individuals. One small study, conducted by the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychiatry, found that individuals in recovery may experience problems related not only to actual sleep patterns, but also to their perception of their sleeping patterns. The study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, made a thorough evaluation of sleep, sleep perception, and alcohol relapse among 18 men and women with insomnia who were in the early stages of alcohol recovery.

The study also indicated the importance of seeking help for sleep disturbances while in recovery. Lead author Deirdre Conroy, Ph.D., a fellow in the University of Michigan Addiction Research Center, commented on the findings:

“What we found is that those patients who had the biggest disconnect between their perception of how they slept and their actual sleep patterns were most likely to relapse. … This suggests that long-term drinking causes something to happen in the brain that interferes with both sleep and perception of sleep. If sleep problems aren’t addressed, the risk of relapse may be high.”

Research has shown that individuals recovering from addiction to substances other than alcohol are also at elevated risk for sleep disturbances. For individuals in recovery, sleep disturbances present a unique problem. Individuals in recovery cannot utilize medicinal aids to alleviate sleep problems without possibly undermining the entire recovery process. Recovery experts recommend some of the following strategies to help individuals in recovery address sleep-related problems:

  • Seek help! Sleep disturbances can be complex and physically devastating. Don’t let a problem that may be outside of your control undermine your efforts at good health and sobriety.
  • Establish a pre-bed routine and follow it each night. This will help to signal your brain and body that it is almost time to sleep.
  • Don’t engage in any sort of stimulating activity for at least two hours before bedtime. This includes any activity that heightens wakefulness, including exercise, high-energy conversations, video games, and other similar activities.
  • Don’t overeat. Overeating, especially at dinner can contribute to difficulty falling and staying asleep.
  • Don’t do anything in bed except sleep. Watching TV or even reading in bed can send mixed signals to your brain and body. Reserving your bed for sleep will help train your body to go to sleep.
  • Avoid coffee and cigarettes for at least three hours before bed. For some, caffeine may need to be avoided after noon.
  • Try setting aside time each evening to write about your concerns in a journal. This may help you process issues that are weighing on your mind before you go to sleep. Going to bed with an unburdened mind and clearer thoughts may reduce unpleasant or anxious dreams.
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