Hyperarousal and how it causes insomnia
At any given time, a delicate balance between two opposing systems governs our body and mind. The sympathetic system is the body’s threat detection system that prepares your body to respond to any threat, while the parasympathetic system calms the body and mind and induces a state of relaxation.
'Everything in life has to have balance.' - Donna Karan.
When the balance tilts in favor of the sympathetic system, hyperarousal ensues. This heightened threat detection system, though, can sometimes come at a cost.
Read on to learn what hyperarousal is, its symptoms and causes, how it affects your sleep, and what you can do about it.
What is Hyperarousal?
Hyperarousal is defined as a state where you are more alert or vigilant. Usually, this alertness is caused by the brain detecting a threat and entering fight-or-flight mode. The cause can be a real external threat or internal fear; for example, worrying about the consequences of not getting enough sleep. The stimuli can be external, internal, physical or emotional, since your body cannot differentiate between the two. It is completely normal and something that we all experience from time to time.
The level of hyperarousal one may experience varies a lot, along with the level of distress and dysfunction it causes. One of the msot extreme examples is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Note that PTSD is not a normal state, but rather a diagnosed disorder,, and you do not have to have PTSD to experience hyperarousal. For most, hyperarousal manifests itself as a subtle sense of unease that you might not even be aware of, but can still disrupt your sleep.
Hyperarousal can also be used to describe other states where you feel emotions like curiosity, bewilderment, frustration, or anger. The common denominator is how this activation impacts bodily functions, such as sleep.
This leads to symptoms such as:
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Vivid dreams about a traumatic event
- Mood disturbances
- Constant anxiety and worry
- Easily unsettled or startled
- Self-condemnation and guilt
Sleep requires the body and mind to relax. It is predominantly a parasympathetic activity. But, in a hyperaroused state, the sympathetic system overpowers the parasympathetic one. This leads to hyperarousal insomnia. This makes evolutionary sense because sleeping when there is an imminent threat significantly lowers your chances of survival, and when in a hyperaroused state, your brain is convinced there is an imminent threat.
Being constantly on high alert can cause rapid, anxious thoughts to occur at night as well as less restorative sleep throughout your sleep cycle. Further, inadequate sleep can then lead to more stress. Simply put, it is a self-propagating cycle.
Unfortunately, if stress is keeping you up at night, you are not alone. According to the National Sleep Foundation Survey, 43% of adults have trouble sleeping due to stress every month. Even though you may have been struggling to sleep, you do not have to. Practical, simple treatments for hyperarousal insomnia exist.
Hyperarousal Insomnia Treatment
Hyperarousal insomnia is a psychological condition. It is a mental state that triggers the body to react to thoughts and emotions as though they are threats that need to be addressed. Fortunately, this mental state can be reversed.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) directly addresses our thoughts and behaviors. It is a type of talking therapy that focuses on the idea that how we think, our habits, and our emotions are all linked and influence one another. We can ease mental suffering by challenging our inaccurate thoughts about threats, challenging our habits, and accepting our feelings. CBT-I allows us to do that and more.
Learn more about CBT-I
Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom is a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialty practice in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Areas of expertise include insomnia and other sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.
Dr Ehrnstrom is the co-author of the book End the Insomnia Struggle: A Step by Step Guide to Help you Get to Sleep and Stay Asleep which offers a comprehensive, personalized sleep program that integrates the physiology of sleep, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).