How Sleep Affects Mental Health

Besides playing a crucial role in our physical health and reducing the risk of life-shortening illnesses like obesity, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, most of us don’t realise how significantly sleep affects our mental health. Besides making you more prepared to take on each day, achieving a good nights sleep can also improve mood and mental wellbeing.

For decades, doctors have used sleep - or the lack of it - as a means of establishing a patient's state of health and wellbeing. From anxiety disorder to depression, one of the early symptoms is often difficulty falling asleep, or inability to sleep at night. Although scientists are still working to unravel all the mysteries of sleep, they are consistently finding a relationship between sleep and mental health problems.

It is now widely believed that chronic sleep loss is one of the leading causes of the development of mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Studies have also linked panic disorders, including panic attacks, to sleep loss.

The science bit

Beyond the physical impact, sleep loss wreaks havoc on the brain and cognitive functions. It stunts our executive functions, impacting our decision-making, innovation, risk-taking, planning and error-correction abilities. In addition, it destroys our ability to regulate emotions and appropriately allocate brain processing power.

After only one night of sleep deprivation, our brains struggle to judge what is important. As a means of coping, to ensure we don’t miss anything critical, our brains default to making everything important. A missed deadline, health concerns, lost keys, and a break-up: everything will be equally anxiety inducing.

 Poor sleep > worry > poor sleep > worry. Rinse & repeat

After just a few sleepless nights, on top of the decrease in cognitive function, your brain begins to send signals that you need rest. This natural but persistent shift in focus to sleep can, ironically, worsen your anxiety and work against achieving restful sleep. A vicious cycle can quickly emerge. 

Lack of sleep is not something to ignore. If you're struggling with sleep problems - whether you can't fall asleep or you have trouble staying asleep - these symptoms need to be addressed. Sleep disorders like chronic insomnia can impact other health conditions so it's important to speak to your doctor if you're struggling.

Five tips to improve your sleep and mental health

Whether you are currently living with mental health problems, or you want to try to prevent them in future, we’ve put together our top five tips to help you acheiev good sleep and snooze your way to better mental health.

  1. Establish a schedule - Adults are just toddlers with jobs. A set sleep and wake time can help to anchor your circadian rhythm to it’s 24-hour cycle.
  2. Create a bedtime routine - Coupled with a set bedtime, a calming routine - particularly one with aromas and fabrics that indulge the senses - can be a helpful cue for your brain that it’s time to rest.
  3. Take the hint - If you haven’t fallen asleep within 15 minutes, get out of bed. Leave your bedroom and do a relaxing activity like reading a book or listening to a podcast - and avoid screens. Don’t return to your bed until you are drowsy, not just tired.
  4. Break a sweat (regularly) - Runner’s high is no myth. Exercise is proven to boost your mental health, as well as physical health. On top of that, breaking out the lycra for a sweat session has been proven to help you fall asleep faster as well as to sleep deeper! Avoid anything too vigorous like running or cycling three hours before bed.
  5. Create a sleep sanctuary - Your bedroom environment plays an important role in achieving quality sleep. Design a comfy, cosy haven where you can snuggle up and sleep securely all night long. Keeping your bedroom tidy and surfaces clear, installing blackout curtains, and investing in a new mattress are all great ways to improve your bedroom environment.

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