Nearly half of people with OCD experience sleep disturbances, but there are ways to improve sleep quality.

Sleep is crucial for your emotional and physical health as well as proper brain functioning. While you’re asleep, your nervous system gets a chance to relax, and your brain can sort and process the day’s experiences.

Sleep is particularly important for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a disorder marked by intrusive thoughts and compulsions. An exhausted brain can cause OCD symptoms to feel much worse.

But many people with OCD have difficulty getting a good night’s sleep. Knowing why this happens and how to intervene can help improve your mental health.

Nearly everyone has had the experience of lying in bed while their anxious thoughts keep them wide awake.

But people with OCD tend to experience this to a much greater extent. They often live with persistent and intrusive anxious thoughts throughout the day. Then, these thoughts aren’t likely to ease up when nighttime comes, making sleep particularly challenging.

For instance, in a 2021 study, people with OCD had poorer sleep quality than people without a mental health disorder.

Researchers also found that the sleep quality of a person with OCD tends to be worse when they also have other mental health conditions, particularly depression or anxiety. The more severe the depression and anxiety in people with OCD, the poorer the sleep quality.

Depression and anxiety are common symptoms found in people with OCD, but depression is the most common condition. In fact, a 2015 cross-sectional study found that between 12% and 67.5% of people with OCD have major depressive disorder.

A bad night’s sleep can significantly affect the next day by making OCD symptoms more severe.

A 2017 study found that people with OCD who do not get a sufficient night’s rest tend to have a harder time the next day managing their OCD symptoms. Poor sleep, therefore, can cause a cycle of worsened OCD symptoms, which can then make it even harder to sleep.

A 2013 study reported that up to 48% of individuals with OCD report sleep disturbances. Those with more severe OCD symptoms also tend to have greater sleep issues.

The most reported sleep problems in those with OCD include:

  • having a hard time falling asleep (known as sleep latency)
  • waking up multiple times in a night
  • lying in bed for hours without sleeping
  • not following a typical sleep schedule (often staying up late)

Many people with OCD also live with a sleep disorder known as delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD). People with DSPD have extreme difficulty falling asleep and waking up in the morning. Their circadian rhythm — the body’s internal alarm clock — does not follow a typical sleep schedule.

Research from 2021 estimates that 17.6% to 42% of people with OCD have DSPD, compared to 0.2% to 10% of the general population. People with both OCD and DSPD tend to have more severe OCD symptoms and report an earlier OCD onset than those without DSPD.

Although many people with OCD are challenged with getting a good night’s rest, there are many ways you can learn to improve your sleep hygiene. Here are some suggestions to consider:

  • Read a book before bed: Reading can help you take your mind off your OCD thoughts and get you into relaxation mode. If possible, try to read a book instead of from a computer or handheld device.
  • Turn off all lights in your bedroom when you’re ready to fall asleep: Any light from electronic devices, especially blue light, disrupts melatonin’s sleep-inducing hormone. Try to avoid bright light right before bed, and then expose yourself to light soon after waking to encourage a healthy circadian rhythm.
  • Try to go to bed and wake up about the same time every day: A regular sleep pattern can help train your body to expect sleep at night and to have an easier time waking in the morning.
  • Exercise during the day: A 2017 review found that daily exercise (even just a walk outside) can help you fall asleep faster, wake up fewer times, and improve deep sleep. Try not to exercise too close to bedtime because it can raise your body temperature and keep you awake.
  • Try natural sleep aids: Natural supplements, including valerian root, ashwagandha (winter cherry), GABA, theanine, and herbal teas, such as chamomile or passionflower, can help reduce anxiety. But you’ll want to talk with a doctor first to see whether natural supplements are a healthy choice for you.
  • Practice mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on breathing and keeping your attention on the present moment. When your mind wanders, gently redirect your attention back to your breathing. You can practice meditation during the day or while lying in bed at night.
  • Avoid drinking caffeine before bed: Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, a neurotransmitter that helps you feel sleepy and ready for bed. Consider drinking only decaffeinated beverages in the evening.
  • Get treated for comorbid depression: Depression is a strong factor in poor sleep and is a common symptom for people with OCD. If you feel depressed, consider speaking with a doctor about treatment options.

Research from 2013 suggests that addressing sleep problems in people with OCD can do the following:

  • improve OCD symptoms
  • lower relapse rates
  • protect against the onset of comorbid psychiatric disorders (i.e., OCD and another mental health disorder)

Research suggests that nearly half of all people who live with OCD experience sleep difficulties.

Those who find sleep a challenge tend to have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and more severe obsessive-compulsive symptoms.

Daily exercise, practicing meditation, and a consistent bedtime schedule are habits that can help you get a good night’s sleep. It’s also essential to get treated for any depressive symptoms because they play a significant role in poor sleep.