In this article, we’ll explore:
- Why sleep is so important for mental health
- How sleep deprivation can impact your mental health
- How different mental health problems can cause sleep disorders
- The top 13 sleep habits to boost sleep quality and mental health
In a world where it’s becoming increasingly harder to switch off, now more than ever is a timely reminder that good health includes mental wellbeing.
One of the most basic things we can take care of is our sleep. Sleep plays a critical role when it comes to maintaining positive mental health. In fact, there’s a very close relationship between sleep and mental health. Lack of sleep or sleep-related problems can often be a key indicator of declining mental health.
Whilst at least one in four of us will experience a mental health issue in our lifetime, we all have mental health and it needs looking after. There are many ways we can boost our mood, from exercise and diet, to spending time with family. Self-care is also essential for good mental health. As the age old saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Why is sleep important for mental health?
- It means we’re recharged and ready to face what life may throw at us
- It helps boost our general health and wellbeing
- Over time, this improves our overall quality of life
Lack of sleep or poor sleep can significantly impact our mental wellbeing and quality of life. However, the good news is that it’s an area where we often have the ability to make positive change.
How does anxiety affect sleep?
Stress and anxiety disorders are often the most common causes of disturbed sleep. Pressure of illness, uncertainty and the burden of responsibility often leads to stress and worry.
In the current pandemic, many of us are juggling working and home-schooling, are worried about job security or suffering with loneliness and isolation. These are all contributing factors to poor mental health, and poor sleep quality.
In times of stress, we may also:
- Under or over-eat
- Lose interest in activities
- Feel agitated
- Struggle to concentrate
Scientists have found a direct correlation between anxiety and rhythm of sleep. When a person is anxious, their heart rate increases, which causes the brain to ‘race’, too. An alert mind produces a type of brain wave known as beta waves, making you far too stimulated to sleep. To make matters worse, an active brain triggers other worries, so it’s even harder to achieve sleep.
Sleep deprivation and mental health
It’s no secret that sleep helps us function effectively every day. A good night’s sleep is important to recharge the brain at the end of the day. When you have one bad night, you can immediately spot how lack of sleep affects your mental health. You will feel irritable, find yourself with a lack of patience and you won’t be able to concentrate.
Long term sleep deprivation can have severe health consequences including anxiety, depression and other serious mental illnesses. People can often feel quite desperate when they need to sleep but can’t.
Sleep needs to be recognised as a vital component of mental health. Links between sleep and depression are strong:
- Approximately three quarters of depressed patients have insomnia symptoms
- Sleep disturbance is common in patients reporting suicidal thoughts
- Postnatal depression is also associated with sleep deprivation
In children and young people, poor sleep patterns adversely affect learning and cognitive ability. This means they often fail to meet their full potential in school. Sleep deprivation is also linked to obesity. Children’s sleep problems are associated with high levels of parental stress and increase the risk of day time behavioural problems.
How to spot the signs of sleep deprivation
It’s important to look out for the signs of sleep deprivation in yourself, your child, a family member, friend or even a colleague.
Here are some of the common signs of sleep deprivation:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased appetite
- Reduced sex drive
- Lack of motivation
- Increased sickness
13 tips to get your sleep back on track after the pandemic
Prioritising your sleep should be top of the agenda when it comes to safeguarding your mental health. This is particularly important as we start to see things return to ‘normal’ after the pandemic and COVID-19.
Following some simple sleep hygiene principles can be a positive first step. Here are 13 sleep habits you can build into your routine to improve your sleep quality and your mental health.
1. Get up and go to bed at the same time
Keep regular hours. Going to bed and getting up at the same time, all the time, programmes the body to sleep better. If you’re continuing to work from home, try not to be tempted to stay in bed longer!
2. Get exposure to natural daylight
Getting outside first thing in the morning can really help boost your mood and energy levels – even if it’s a cloudy day. Open the curtains or blinds straight away and if possible, have a morning walk.
3. Call or text family or friends
Many of us are feeling lonely right now. If you’re self-isolating, try picking up the phone and talking to a friend. Even sending a simple text can cheer you up.
4. Turn off screens an hour before bedtime
This is beneficial for adults and children. Games, social media, news and work emails can all stimulate the brain and cause anxious thoughts or feelings.
5. Avoid alcohol
While it may help you fall asleep initially, it will interrupt your sleep later on in the night. It’s also important not to use alcohol as a way of ‘coping’ or as a sleep aid.
6. Cut down on caffeine
Especially in the evening. Have a hot milky drink or herbal tea instead. For children, swap a hot chocolate for warm milk.
7. Get regular exercise
Try to exercise at least three times a week for 30 minutes. A brisk walk in the fresh air will do wonders for clearing your mind.
8. Wind down properly
Read a book, have a bath or listen to soothing music. Relaxation exercises, meditation or mindfulness are extremely beneficial in helping the brain to re-focus and keep calm.
Children benefit from hand-eye coordination activities such as colouring and jigsaws – some adults find this therapeutic too! Find what works for you and build it into the bedtime routine.
9. Practice self-care
As we start to see a return to ‘normal’, things like the daily commute to work or spending time socialising could feel overwhelming. Ensure you take time each day for yourself to relax and recharge.
10. Make a list
Deal with worries or heavy workload by making lists of things to be tackled the next day.
11. Tidy your bedroom
Create a sanctuary to sleep in. Messy bedrooms make for a messy mind so declutter. In children’s rooms, get them to help you tidy toys away at the end of the day.
12. Invest in comfort
13. Don’t use your bedroom as your office
Many of us have no choice but to work from the bedroom at the moment. If you do, make sure you pack away your work items each day, so that you can associate your bedroom purely with sleep.
How can mental health problems affect sleep?
According to Mind, there are a number of ways a mental health problem can cause sleep problems.
Anxiety can cause thoughts to race through your mind, making it difficult to sleep.
Depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
These disorders can lead to oversleeping – either sleeping late in the morning or sleeping a lot during the day. If you experience difficult or troubling thoughts as part of depression, this can also cause insomnia
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD can cause nightmares and night terrors, disturbing your sleep. This can mean you feel anxious about falling asleep, which could lead to insomnia.
Paranoia and psychosis
Paranoia and pschosis make it difficult for you to sleep. You may hear voices or see things that you find frightening, or experience disturbing thoughts, which make it hard to fall asleep.
This often causes feelings of energy and elation, so you might not feel tired or want to sleep. Racing thoughts caused by mania can make it hard to fall asleep and may cause insomnia.
Psychiatric medication can also cause certain symptoms and sleep disorders including insomnia, disturbed sleep or oversleeping. You may also experience sleep problems after you stop taking psychiatric drugs.
When to get further help
We hope this advice helps to support your sleep and wellbeing. However, it’s important to recognise when you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed so that you can help take the necessary steps to get help. Visit your GP if you feel you need some specialist help.
Below is a list of professional organisations and charities you can contact: