Hyperarousal and how it can cause 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.
When the balance tilts in favor of the sympathetic system, hyperarousal ensues.
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 & What Causes It?
Hyperarousal is a state in which you are more alert or vigilant. Usually, hyperarousal is caused by the brain detecting a threat and entering fight-or-flight mode. The cause can be a real external threat or an internal fear or anxiety.
The level of hyperarousal one may experience varies greatly, along with the level of distress and dysfunction it causes. One of the most extreme examples is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 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.
What are the Symptoms of Hyperarousal?
Hyperarousal can manifest itself through a variety of 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
Why Is It Hard To Fall Asleep in a State of Hyperarousal?
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 and prevents your body from falling asleep. 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. This leads to hyperarousal insomnia.
What Is Hyperarousal Insomnia?
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 and keeps your body at high alert.
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, turning it into a self-propagating cycle.
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.
How Do You Treat Hyperarousal Insomnia?
Cognitive behavioral therapy for hyperarousal 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 Treatment for Hyperarousal Insomnia
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 not a medical provider and is not providing any recommendations regarding medications. Rather, she is sharing and reviewing the research as it relates to education when learning how best to treat insomnia.