By Colette Dowling
Four out of five people who become depressed approach bedtime with varying degrees of dread. They toss and turn, restlessly occupied with negative thoughts. Obsess about something dumb they did, or think they did, at the party that night. Money, taxes, their teeth falling out of their gums, you name it they worry about it. When I became depressed after a long bout of anemia (many chronic illnesses produce depression), I found myself worrying about my studio tumbling into the stream that lay next to it. I knew it wasn’t rational but I felt helpless to control what my mind was doing.
Anyone who’s been depressed knows how it goes. A relentlessly disturbing train of thought can begin with just the tiniest kernel of reality. The bank along the stream next to my studio was etched away in places, damaged by heavy spring rains. As my brain cells altered with the depression, the erosion escalated in my mind–first to the loss of my studio; ultimately to the loss of my home, on the same piece of land. Perhaps I should sell before my entire nest egg was swept away by the ravages of nature; on the other hand, th real estate market was so bad, maybe there would be no nest egg, and so on. Obessionl thoughts like these go hand in hand with depression and lying in bed awaiting sleep provides prime time. Lucky were the mornings when sanity returned, and I was able to have the calming thought, “This house has been sitting here since 1775; I don’t think it’s going anywhere soon.”
The biological underpinnings of these anxious thoughts became strikingly clear when, after taking iron for a month or so, my blood count returned to normal and so did my mood. Suddenly–really, from one week to the next–concerns about the imminent demise of my farmhouse vanished. My daytime thoughts became positive, and my nighttime thoughts returned to dreamland, where they belonged.
Trouble falling asleep is usually associated with anxiety. Waking at four o’clock in the morning, anxious and disturbed, is considered a sign of depression. In milder cases only an hour or so of sleep may be lost. When depression is more serious, the loss can add up to several hours or more. Some people say they don’t get any sleep at all, or they fall asleep shortly before they’re supposed to get up. Those in their sixties, seventies and eighties who have trouble sleeping should be evaluated for depression, if no organic reason for sleep loss can be found. Some physicians think poor sleep is inevitable in older patients. It isn’t, and it should be considered symptomatic.
Lack of rest is not the only sleep disturbance associated with depression. Someone who’s going to bed at midnight and getting up at one the next afternoon also has a sleep problem. Hypersomnia, it’s called–the need for more sleep than normal.
No matter which kind of sleep disturbance, it will become more severe as the depressive episode gathers force. There may be terrible, depressive dreams and abrupt waking in sobs.
Of course lack of sleep produces daytime fatigue, which can become so severe it dominates the clinical picture. Doctors and other health practitioners may come rushing in with any diagnosis other than a mood problem. There are verbal tests that go along way toward helping doctors and therapists make an accurate depression diagnosis, in those in whom it’s a possibility.
Sleep improvement, by the same token, is often the first sign that a depression is lifting. Long before her mood changes the depressed person will find herself falling asleep more easily and sleeping through the night. The appetite–whether minimal or excessive–normalizes. Weight loss–or gain–stops. And before long, things start looking positive again.
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Colette Dowling, LMSW, is an internationally renowned writer and lecturer. She has written eight books and is best known for uncovering women’s psychological conflicts with independence in her best-selling The Cinderella Complex. Other books she has written are “You Mean I Don’t Have to Feel This Way?” (the first book for the lay reader about the the biological underpinnings of depression, anxiety and addiction), Red Hot Mamas (about women’s new lives after 50), and The Frailty Myth, about the psychological effect on women of having been historically discouraged from developing the full strength of their bodies.
Colette is a graduate of The Smith College School for Social Work and has done Post-masters training at The Institue for Contemporary Psychotherapy. She is a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of women. Those interested in a consultation can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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