Sleep. We spend about a third of our lives doing it. We know we need it. And yet for many people, their relationship with sleep is, well, complicated.
For anyone who has gone through periods of having difficulty sleeping, or perhaps faces more consistent challenges getting a good night’s sleep, you will know that sleep problems have an effect on how you feel not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.
In fact, the relationship between sleep and mental health is a two way street. Those experiencing mental health challenges are more likely to have trouble getting a good night's sleep and in turn, not getting adequate sleep can have a negative effect on anyone’s mental health regardless of any pre-existing conditions. For example, poor sleep, and specifically a lack of REM sleep, can have a damaging effect on the brain’s ability to think and regulate emotion.
For those who have a pre-existing mental health challenge, insomnia and other sleep problems can be a resulting symptom, and greatly hinder recovery. Studies have shown that between sixty-five to ninety percent of adults and ninety percent of children who have major depression also struggle with a sleep problem.
Further still, those who struggle with a sleep problem are at a higher risk for developing a mental illness. Similar studies have shown that chronic insomnia can increase the risk of developing depression by five times, and the risk of developing a panic disorder by twenty times.
So what can you do to help yourself to get better sleep?
The National Sleep Foundation offers a series of tips that include maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, practising a nightly wind-down routine, exercising, altering caffeine intake, and more. One suggestion that may come as a surprise is that if you are having trouble sleeping, the best thing to do isn’t to keep trying relentlessly, but rather to get up every once and awhile and do something other than lying in bed. This can also help reduce the stress and anxiety you may feel as you struggle to get to sleep knowing you have to wake up in 7 hours...now 6 hours...now 5 hours...
When you’re already having trouble sleeping and managing your mental health as a result it can be overwhelming and quite frustrating to know you need better sleep, feel that pressure, and yet not know where to start. This, in itself, can negatively impact your mental health by increasing feelings of stress and anxiety as you struggle to find something that helps.
This two way relationship between sleep and mental health means not only that addressing sleep issues can improve mental health, but also that addressing mental health challenges can in turn help improve quality of sleep. If you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep, remember that you can seek help from doctors or therapists. Above all, try to be patient and compassionate with yourself throughout the process! You’re tired, you’re trying, you’re doing the best you can.