Getting consistent and high-quality sleep is an integral part of your physical and mental wellbeing. Numerous studies have illustrated that sleep problems can negatively affect your mental health.
Around 10-18% of adults within the United States struggle with chronic sleep problems. In fact, lack of sleep or low-quality sleep can be common among individuals struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), and anxiety. Clinical research suggests that sleep can be both a cause and a consequence of mental health issues.
Brain activity rapidly increases and decreases during different stages of sleep. In non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM), the brain’s activity slows but has quick bursts of energy. In rapid eye movement sleep (REM), brain activity increases and is associated with dreaming. Adequate sleep allows the brain to cycle between these two stages of sleep, allowing the brain to process emotional information collected throughout the day.
Sleep and Mental Health
Sleep is a necessary component for both the physical upkeep of the body and the maintenance of cognitive skills, attention, learning, memory, and emotional regulation. In fact, lack of consistent and quality sleep can lead to mental health issues.
Almost three-quarters of people struggling with depression show symptoms of sleep problems, including insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, or hypersomnia. While experts once thought that sleep problems were a symptom of depression, recent evidence suggests that insufficient sleep has the potential of inducing and exacerbating symptoms of depression.
However, it’s important to note that depression often has a bidirectional relationship with sleep problems. In other words, poor sleep can worsen depression, and depression can worsen sleep problems. Despite this, the consensus from experts is that focusing on sleep quality can positively affect depression symptoms.
Anxiety disorders typically create distressing fear or worry that affect a person’s everyday functioning. Different types of anxiety include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These disorders have a strong associat
ion with sleep difficulties. One of the main reasons these disorders lead to sleep difficulties is that worry and fear contribute to hyperarousal. This hyperarousal leads to racing thoughts and can result in insomnia and added difficulty in falling asleep.
When an individual doesn’t get enough sleep, adrenal glands produce an increased amount of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that plays a prominent role in keeping us alert. When there is too much cortisol in the body, it goes into a state of stress, making the body unable to relax, leading to potentially more significant struggles with insomnia.
What to do When you Can’t Sleep
Keep a Sleep Diary
Keeping a sleep diary can help you better understand your habits that may contribute to any sleep problems you may be facing.
What to Include in your Sleep Diary:
- Bedtimes (morning and evening)
- Total sleep hours
- Perceived quality of sleep
- The time that you woke up in the middle of the night and what you did while you were awake
- Types of food and drinks you consumed before bed
- Feelings and moods before bed
- And drugs or medications taken, including the dose and time taken.
After keeping this record for a couple of weeks, you may start to notice patterns within your nighttime or morning routine that may be contributing to a lesser quality of sleep. Having this data can help you make changes in your nighttime or morning routines that may help increase your sleep quality.
Developing a relaxing bedtime routine can teach your body that it is time to start winding down and preparing for sleep. Aim for a bedtime routine to begin about 30 minutes before your actual sleep time.
While every bedtime routine will vary, creating a comforting environment allows your body and mind to relax. It may be helpful to disconnect from electronics that are typically close to your eyes, like laptops and smartphones. The blue light emitted from these electronics may make it difficult for you to fall asleep.
Dimming the lights, playing white noise or relaxing music at a low volume, or practicing mindfulness activities such as meditation before bed may also help prepare your mind and body for sleep.
Diet and Exercise
Research has found that the food you eat and your activity level may affect your quality of sleep. Spicy foods and bigger meals leading up to bedtime may negatively affect your quality of sleep and your ability to fall and stay asleep. While it is ok to eat before bed, try to avoid spicy and heavier foods. Also, avoiding caffeine and alcohol leading up to bedtime may help you fall asleep faster and have a higher sleep quality throughout the night.