Key Takeaways

  • Unlike the restless nights we all experience sometimes, sleep disorders are mental health conditions that cause long-term sleep disturbances. They can stem from a variety of causes.
  • Left untreated, sleep disorders can cause significant harm to your mental and physical health. They can also interrupt your ability to function in daily life and meet your obligations at work or school.
  • If you have a sleep disorder, know that there is effective treatment available. Your doctor or therapist can help you uncover the root of your sleep challenges and identify the support that will help you get the rest you deserve.

You probably know what it’s like to spend a night tossing and turning, unable to fall or stay asleep. You may wake up groggy and disoriented and feel exhausted throughout the day. Even an occasional poor night’s sleep can impact your functioning. Fatigue can make it harder to focus and complete your to-do list at home, school, or work. 

There are many reasons that you might have a hard time falling or staying asleep once in a while. However, people living with sleep disorders experience a chronic inability to get adequate rest. This creates a constant state of exhaustion that can impact your physical and mental well-being in a variety of ways.   

Defining sleep disorders

Sleep is one of the most important building blocks of your overall health. Without adequate time to recharge, your body and brain cannot function properly. Unlike the occasional periods of restless sleep we all experience, sleep disorders cause chronic, debilitating sleep disturbances. This can impact your memory, concentration, mood, physical health, and immune system. 

So how do you know the difference between a bad night’s sleep and a sleep disorder? By familiarizing yourself with some of the common signs and symptoms of sleep disorders, you’ll know when it might be time to ask for help. You may have a sleep disorder if:

  • You have a hard time falling asleep, and it usually takes you more than 30 minutes to do so.
  • You wake up frequently in the middle of the night, and you have trouble falling back to sleep.
  • You snore loudly or make choking noises when you’re asleep.
  • You feel frozen or like you can’t move when you wake up.
  • You feel “fidgety” or like you can’t keep your legs still when you try to relax.
  • You’re always tired during the day, or you take frequent naps or fall asleep when you don’t mean to.
  • You have trouble with concentration and focus.
  • You’ve become irritable, and you have trouble managing your emotions.
  • You’re having a hard time meeting expectations at work or school.
  • Your fatigue has resulted in frequent falls or other accidents.

Six types of sleep disorders

There are many different types of sleep disorders. If you or someone you care about is showing any signs of a sleep disorder, talk to a doctor or mental health professional about an evaluation. Some of the most common sleep disorders include:

  1. Insomnia: People living with insomnia have trouble falling and staying asleep all the time. This typically causes a significant interruption in functioning during the day. While insomnia can be caused by certain underlying health factors, it can also result from stress.
  2. Sleep apnea: This potentially life-threatening condition causes breathing interruptions during sleep. It leads to chronic daytime sleepiness and an increased risk for a variety of serious health concerns. People with sleep apnea may snore or make choking or gasping sounds when their breathing restarts.
  3. Restless legs syndrome (RLS): People with RLS experience an uncontrollable urge to move their legs while they’re resting. Some describe this as an itching, tingling, crawling, or burning sensation. While movement provides relief, it also makes it hard to fall and stay asleep, resulting in frequent daytime sleepiness.
  4. Narcolepsy: A disease of the central nervous system, narcolepsy causes excessive daytime sleepiness no matter how much you slept the night before. It may cause you to fall asleep at inappropriate times. 
  5. Circadian rhythm sleep disorders: This category of sleep disorders occurs when your “internal clock” doesn’t match up with your environment. In other words, it causes people to want to sleep during the day and be awake at night. Unlike temporary sleep disruptions caused by things like jet lag, the symptoms typically don’t stop without professional help.
  6. Parasomnias: Parasomnias are episodes of uncontrollable, unwanted thoughts and behaviors that occur while a person is asleep. They include sleep talking, hallucinations, night terrors, sleepwalking, and sleep paralysis. Many people experience parasomnias as children but eventually grow out of them. However, they can also result from acute stress or sleep deprivation.

What causes sleep disorders?

Sometimes, sleep disorders stem from biological or medical factors, but environment and lifestyle can also play a role. There are certain factors that might increase your risk of developing one. These factors include:

  • Having a medical condition like asthma, heart disease, a pain disorder, or a nerve condition
  • Having deficiencies in certain minerals or brain chemicals
  • Using substances like alcohol or caffeine before bed
  • Having a close relative who also has a sleep disorder
  • Doing shift work that requires frequent, drastic schedule changes 
  • Living with a mental health condition like depression or anxiety
  • Taking medications that are known to impact sleep
  • Experiencing acute stress
  • Being female
  • Being over the age of 65

Treatments for sleep disorders

Everyone living with a sleep disorder will have their own unique treatment needs. But if you’re having trouble with your sleep, you can use the following list of treatments to start a conversation with your provider about what’s right for you.

  • Lifestyle modifications: What you do in the hours leading up to bedtime can greatly impact your sleep. Experts recommend practicing good sleep hygiene by keeping a consistent sleep schedule and limiting caffeine, alcohol, and strenuous exercise before bed. You should also do what you can to make your sleep space comfortable and remove electronics like TVs, computers, and phones from that area. 
  • Behavioral therapy: Certain forms of talk therapy, like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can help remove mental barriers to restful sleep.
  • Medication: There is some evidence that over-the-counter supplements like melatonin and various prescription sleep aids may help you get a better night’s sleep. But you should talk to your doctor before taking any new medications for sleep.
  • Medical devices: If you have sleep apnea, your doctor will likely prescribe a medical device called a CPAP machine. This wearable device will help keep your airways open while you sleep.
  • Complementary therapies: Many people who have issues with sleep incorporate alternative therapies — like yoga, acupuncture, or relaxation techniques like breathing exercises — into their treatment plans. 

Find care with Rula

At Rula, we know how difficult life can be when you’re having sleep troubles. Dealing with constant daytime weariness can make even the simplest tasks feel overwhelming. But know that with the right support, you can create a sleep routine that helps you get the rest you deserve. 

When you’re ready, we invite you to explore our therapist-matching program, where you can connect with a therapist who takes your insurance in just a few minutes. And, our network of over 8,000 therapists means you can be seen as soon as this week. 

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