Most people know that sleep is an integral part of staying on top of mental health. Good sleep can help you unwind anxiety, reset worries, and find a new perspective on a situation. Not to mention it’s key for almost every natural body function, including proper executive functioning in the brain.
But getting good – and enough – sleep is easier said than done. Anyone living with ADHD knows that a good night’s sleep can be hard to find. In my work as a therapist for millennials living with anxiety and ADHD, many of my clients worry about their poor sleep patterns.
No, it’s not just you – there’s a link between ADHD and sleep deprivation. Here’s how to deal with it.
Adults need at least 7 hours of sleep every day in order to be healthy, productive, and alert. But many adults don’t get this amount of sleep. And if you have ADHD, your chances of sleeping well and enough may be even lower.
Insomnia is defined as a sleep disorder in which you can’t fall or stay asleep. And it’s known to reduce concentration, memory, and the ability to be productive – things that people with ADHD already struggle with.
So is insomnia a symptom of ADHD? The short answer is yes.
People with ADHD are, in fact, particularly prone to insomnia. In a review of scientific studies, around 80% of adults with ADHD reported difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or feeling refreshed upon waking.
The reasons for this comorbidity aren’t fully understood, but the connection is clear. Explanations range from stimulant meds to bedtime procrastination to difficulty with time management and organization. The causes are both environmental and biological.
And the type of ADHD you have may have a significant impact on how you sleep. People with primarily inattentive-type ADHD are more likely to have a later bedtime, and those with primarily hyperactive-impulsive ADHD are more likely to experience insomnia across the board.
Although the exact links between ADHD and sleep deprivation aren’t fully known, I see a lot of similarities among my clients who experience sleep woes. Here are some potential reasons for the connection between insomnia and ADHD.
For one thing, stimulant medications can impact sleep quality. Not everyone with ADHD uses medication, and not everyone who uses medication struggles to sleep. For some, stimulants have a calming and soothing effect, which can help with sleep. But for others, they can ramp up energy and wakefulness.
Coexisting mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression may also be reducing your sleep quality. Both anxiety and depression are likely to coexist with ADHD. And if you’re up at night because you can’t stop thinking about that thing you said to someone, or you’re worried about work tomorrow, that may be both your anxiety and your ADHD at play.
Difficulty sticking to a schedule is another reason for the ADHD-sleep deprivation connection. Sticking to a routine, including a bedtime routine, can be a challenge. Having a hard time regulating habits and patterns is part of the executive dysfunction in ADHD brains.
Some researchers have found that delayed circadian rhythms are responsible for ADHD and sleep deprivation. Some people with ADHD may have delayed melatonin production, resulting in daytime sleepiness and later bedtimes.
Bedtime procrastination – and procrastination in general – can also impact insomnia and ADHD. People with ADHD have difficulty doing tasks on time, and it can be easy to procrastinate on getting ready for bed until much later than you intended.
Both sleep deprivation and ADHD can result in decreased executive functioning and a sense of feeling scattered and unproductive. For this reason, it can be hard to tell whether your difficulty concentrating and remembering tasks is due to ADHD or lack of sleep. But most likely, both insomnia and ADHD are at play.
So what can you do about it? Here are some ideas you can start with.
Switch meds. If you’re on stimulant medication, consider your sleep habits before you were on medication. Did your insomnia pop up after you started medication? If so, talk to your doctor about switching your meds. (I’m not a doctor nor am I a psychiatrist, so make sure you consult someone with a medical background before switching meds). Sometimes a simple change can make a big difference in curbing insomnia. This process can take time, though, and switching your meds may include other unintended consequences. Make sure you’re in a good place to be trying something new, and work closely with a doctor and/or ADHD therapist to help you navigate the process.
Get plenty of sunlight. I know, I know – if you’re like me, you might be sick of hearing from everyone that you should be spending more time outside. I get that your life is busy and you may not have the resources or access to get a lot of sun. But if at all possible, get plenty of sunshine every day. Sunlight helps regulate your circadian rhythm, and has the added bonus of combating anxiety and depression – especially if you experience the winter blues.
If getting sunlight is inaccessible for you, or you live in a place with exceptionally long and grey winters, try a Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lamp or light box. It can provide similar benefits as sunlight without you having to leave the house.
Exercise. This is another one that everybody harps on – but for good reason. Exercise improves your mood, makes you naturally more tired at the end of the day, and can improve sleep. Thirty minutes a day is a good goal to strive for if you can. And you get bonus points if you combine exercise and sunshine.
Stick to a routine. Make small changes that help you wind down, relax, and get ready for bed. Don’t try to change every habit all at once – that will only lead to overwhelm and regret. Try listening to a relaxing playlist, turning your phone off an hour before bed, playing white or brown noise, or doing some gentle stretches before bed, for example.
If you’re at your wit’s end with ADHD and sleep deprivation, I'm here to help. I can help you improve underlying issues that result in sleep deprivation in the first place, like poor time management skills and sleep hygiene.
Together, we’ll practice creating healthy routines, figuring out how to implement behaviors in your day that promote better sleep, and building skills and habits to curb the insomnia and ADHD cycle.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.