Junior Maia Tindall typically finds herself going to bed every night at 11 p.m. For many, this would seem like a regular or even early bedtime. Instead of sleeping, however, most nights Tindall reads until she is physically unable to, which is around 2 a.m.
Overwhelmed by the need for rest, she feels exhausted but is mentally unable to sleep as her mind continues to race. On good nights, Tindall gets four to six hours of sleep, but on bad nights, only one to three. She is one of millions of Americans who have a sleep disorder known as insomnia.
Defined as the inability to either fall or stay asleep, insomnia adversely affects all who have it and threatens to ruin one’s productivity, and physical and psychological well-being.
Dr. Kate Kaplan, Ph.D., a clinical instructor at the Stanford Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, explains the science behind the constant awakeness in a person with insomnia.
“Oftentimes with insomnia we start to develop an association between the bed and being awake — the brain starts to link bed with wake rather than with bed and sleep which can start to lead into bad habits. It gets harder and harder to sleep, we can drink more and more caffeine in the daytime, (and) it can make us take more naps in the daytime, which is actually bad for us.”
Dr. Kate Kaplan
Paly AP Psychology teacher Christopher Farina elaborates on the symptoms of the sleep disorder and why sleep disorders generally share symptoms.
“(Insomnia affects people) the same way that any kind of lack of sleep would,” Farina said. “So exactly the same things you would see if a person is generally not getting enough sleep, you’re going to see if a person can’t fall asleep or stay asleep. Everything from irritability to poor cognitive performance — there does seem to be some correlation with weight gain and all that bad stuff.”
Farina additionally mentions how insomnia develops and why some people have acute or chronic insomnia.
“There’s likely some genetic predisposition towards it, but then on top of that there pretty much always has to be some kind of environmental triggers that would cause it as well,” Farina said. “That could be anything from bad bedtime habits, (such as) people who will just stay up late looking at backlit devices, or it could be a stresser in one’s life, (such as) some kind of anxiety producing situation, whether that’s an upcoming test (which) could cause a very acute type of insomnia or dealing with an ongoing issue (which) could cause some type of chronic insomnia.”
Tindall, who has experienced chronic insomnia her entire life, believes the chronic state of her insomnia may stem from her genetics.
“According to my mom, I’ve had it since I was a baby — I’ve just always had insomnia, it (got) worse especially in high school and middle school. (Additionally,) my whole dad’s side of the family has a lot of mental health issues, mostly anxiety and insomnia. My dad in particular only gets three or four hours of sleep a night.”
Tindall likely suffers from hereditary insomnia, but also believes that her insomnia is tied to her mental health and academic stress.
“My insomnia is usually tied to my anxiety,” Tindall said. “And I usually don’t sleep as much as other people. During finals week and stuff like that I tend to sleep less just because when I’m more anxious about anything in life, particularly school …it just keeps me up a lot more at night.”
Tindall also suffers from the disorder known as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which worsens the quality of her sleep. According to Kaplan, OCD fills the mind with obsessive thoughts that prevent an insomniac from sleeping.
“Some people (with OCD) get so fixated on their sleep and sounds in their environment that they’re not sleeping,” Kaplan said. “Thus, it becomes more of a challenge to shift their attention to other things that are more conducive to sleep.”
Tindall has seen a decrease in her OCD symptoms thanks to her sleep medication. She now sleeps six to seven hours, and, although it’s still less than the recommended number of hours of sleep, Tindall knows it’s better than nothing.
“I take medication because I also have OCD … they think it’s a side of effect of it, part of the insomnia, (…) that’s been helping with it a lot recently,” Tindall said.
Tindall, who is finally able to cope with insomnia, shares some advice with those who may suffer from the same disorder.
Tindall said, “If anybody has insomnia and doesn’t know what to do about it, try and talk to a therapist, there could be a pretty easy solution to it that you haven’t been able to check out because you don’t have the resources or the means.”