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Sleepless nights may trigger paranoid fears

12 June 2010

People suffering from insomnia are also more likely to fear that others are trying to harm them, Dr Daniel Freeman from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, revealed at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival today.

Dr Freeman, recently awarded a prestigious five-year Medical Research Council (MRC) Senior Clinical Research Fellowship,  is the lead author of a newly published report in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, which found that people who are having difficulties getting to sleep also show increased rates of paranoid thinking. The results were found in a survey of the mental health of 8580 adults in Britain.

Difficulties getting to sleep were common. One out of three of the British population reported difficulties in the past month with getting to sleep (38%), one out of ten reported such difficulties occurring at least four nights in the past week (11.9%), and one out of twenty people had had these difficulties persisting for over six months (6.6%).

Talking about his current research, Dr Freeman said: 'It has long been known that sleepless nights can cause us to feel anxious and irritable, however this is the first time sleep difficulties and paranoia have been examined on such a large scale. This new research establishes that there is a substantial association between sleep difficulties and paranoid thinking. We’re much more likely to perceive threats from other people when we aren’t sleeping well. Sleeplessness and suspicion may be close bedfellows.'

'So how can we understand this connection? Quite simply, going without sleep makes us both anxious and miserable, which is fertile ground for paranoid fears. Anxiety makes us anticipate harm, while low mood makes us feel especially vulnerable. Of course many people have troubles sleeping without getting suspicious, but this research indicates insomnia may well increase the risk of paranoia.'

The difficulties getting to sleep were substantially associated with paranoid fears. People who had found it difficult to sleep within the past month were three times more likely to fear that people were deliberately acting to harm them or their interests, than those who had slept well.

Chronic insomnia sufferers were five times more likely to think that a group of people was plotting to cause them serious harm or injury. The worse the insomnia, the more likely paranoid thoughts were also present. Even when levels of anxiety, worry, depression and irritability in the study participants were taken into account, the association between insomnia and paranoia remained.

Dr Freeman added: 'The good news is that there are tried-and-tested ways to overcome insomnia,' added Dr Freeman. "In particular, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has proven benefits. Helpful tips for overcoming insomnia include: taking some exercise during the day, cutting out caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine in the evening, developing a relaxing evening routine, and learning to associate your bed with sleep, chiefly by only going to bed when you’re tired and getting up after twenty minutes if you haven’t fallen asleep.

'The intriguing implication of the research is that by improving our sleep we may well become less suspicious of those around us.'

King’s is partnering all four Cheltenham Festivals this year and the Science Festival takes place from 9 - 13 June.

 ‘Persecutory ideation and insomnia: Findings from the second British National Survey of Psychiatric Morbidity’ Daniel Freeman, Traolach Brugha, Howard Meltzer, Rachel Jenkins, Daniel Stahl and Paul Bebbington.



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