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How do I cope with insomnia as a caregiver?

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Updated March 01, 2012

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Question: How do I cope with insomnia as a caregiver?
My husband has advanced pancreatic cancer and I am his primary caregiver. Actually, I am pretty much his only caregiver. Lately, I have been suffering from severe insomnia, despite not sleeping much. My husband's sleep pattern is very erratic and I do try to sleep when he does, but with household chores, kids, and errands, I just don't have the time. When I do try to sleep, it either takes me a long time to finally fall asleep or I just don't fall asleep. I have literally gone over 48 hours before without sleep because of this. Help!
Answer: Based on what you are describing, it does sound like you are suffering from insomnia. Insomnia is defined as a sleep disorder characterized by no sleep, little sleep, or poor sleep. It can be chronic or acute, but know that insomnia is quite common, especially among caregivers. While it may be a comfort to know that insomnia is common, the effects of it can greatly influence your quality of life. Sleep is essential for our bodies to function optimally and when it doesn't receive what it needs, the result can be fatigue, depression, irritability, and other symptoms.

There are several possible causes of insomnia and many caregivers find that there is usually a combination of reasons why they may be experiencing sleep problems. Here are some common causes of insomnia:

Stress, Anxiety, and Worry: Being a cancer caregiver can be stressful, especially if the patient is a spouse, child, or parent. You may be worried about his/her condition and also simply overwhelmed with the important task of providing around-the-clock care to someone else. These are completely normal feelings, but as the effects of not getting enough sleep increase or begin to interfere with your health as insomnia does, it may signal that you may be experiencing caregiver burnout.

Caffeine or Energy Drink Consumption: Caffeine is a major cause of insomnia and is often relied upon by people with insomnia to increase energy during the day. Insomnia causes fatigue and in turn, you may be tempted to consume coffee, soft drinks, or energy drinks to boost energy to make it through the day. It may feel like it's helping in the short term, but caffeine may be the root of the problem. Consider giving up caffeine and energy drinks, or don't consume them after 2:00 p.m.

Medication Side Effects: Sleep disturbances can be a side effect of many medications. Check possible side effects online or consult your pharmacist or doctor to see if sleep disturbances are a side effect of the medications you are taking.

Erratic Sleep Pattern: Caring for someone with a serious illness like cancer can cause your regular sleep pattern to become disrupted. Waking in the middle of the night to give medicines or tend to other caregiving tasks can cause your sleep cycle to become erratic. The natural response is to nap when you can, but it ultimately leads to even more irregular sleep cycles. This can greatly contribute to the development of insomnia.

Insomnia can also be related to certain diseases and conditions, like overactive thyroid, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease.

Treating Insomnia

The overall stress of caregiving is often the root cause of insomnia among caregivers. Remember, to care for another person, you have to take care of you first. This means getting respite care if possible and taking the time to relax and do something you enjoy. You may feel guilty -- this is normal, but you deserve to to have time to relax. It's therapeutic! You'd be surprised at what a few hours each week can do to decrease stress levels!

Many times, part of reducing stress means asking for help from others. Enlist the help from family and friends to help with chores, meals, and caregiving. If this isn't possible, there may be help through religious or social organizations.

Your doctor is a valuable resource for treating insomnia. Medications to help you sleep are available, along with non-pharmological therapies. Based on the severity of your insomnia, your doctor will recommend an appropriate treatment. How is insomnia diagnosed?

Read more about insomnia treatment:

  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Cancer
  4. Daily Life with Cancer
  5. Insomnia in Cancer Caregivers - How Manage and Cope

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